Food in a New Land

Whenever we move I find that I cook differently.

It isn’t intentional. Sometimes the issue is one of ingredients, but usually I can’t explain it–Houston’s sad garlic wasn’t worth roasting like I did in Boston, and I couldn’t run the oven that long anyway. In Boston I made salsa from scratch, because what I could find wasn’t worth eating. I don’t even remember anymore what I put in the quesadillas that I ate for dinner in Austin, or the reason I stopped making the thing with pearl couscous.

In Houston, by the end, I barely cooked at all. Why bother, when we were in a town of world-class restaurants we would miss so much?

Now I find myself in a place where ingredients are incredible, and restaurant food is often forgettable at best. I have a fishmonger, a cheesemonger, two green grocers, and a baker in the village down the street. Even from the budget supermarkets, the potatoes come out of the bag smelling of dirt, and the tomato stems like real tomato plants.

We also managed, by some magic that I still pinching myself over, to find a rental house with a huge bright kitchen. Thanks to a tiny apartment, a series of townhouses, and one very odd remodel, I haven’t had kitchen windows since I moved out of my parents’ house.

Everything is perfectly in place to cook with heart and meaning and intention. I am excited to see what meals I will love best here.


Summer of Basics Planning

And now, for some actual crafts:

The Fringe Association Summer of Basics Makealong is on the schedule! The premise of Summer of Basics is to make “3 high-closet-value garments in the space of 3 months, either knitted, sewn, or any combination of the two.”

I had very much hoped to finish my current sweater project to clear the decks, but I am skeptical. Instead I will adjust my expectations to be able to finish it with time to complete another knitting project. The current sweater is already much loved, and the last sweater I put away unfinished was destroyed by moths.

With that said, the knitting project for Summer of Basics is going to be Madder’s Uniform Cardigan, in a version a lot like this one:

UNIFORM - knit & sew / Book & E-Book

The yarn is an undyed cream from Thirteen Mile Lamb and Wool. It has been so long since I picked a yarn after picking a pattern! I really struggled to decide. There are a lot of great worsted weight yarns out there, but I wanted something that was a little sheep-y, with some natural texture. I don’t love larger gauge knits in smooth yarns; that’s the main reason why it’s been ages since I knit anything bulkier than DK.

With almost 2000 yards of yarn to turn into a sweater, I am probably only going to get one knit in. That’s a little unfortunate, since I need a winter wardrobe more than anything else.

For sewing projects, there are just so many to pick from!

Label: Plain Weave - IvoryI already have this amazing indigo striped khadi cloth from A Verb for Keeping Warm, which will probably turn into a simple top, like Sonya Philip’s Shirt No 1. I have enough yardage to make a dress, but I think the fabric is too sheer. Maybe a dress intended as a tunic? I alternate between telling myself that I will never progress my sewing skills making box tops, and the fact that I really love a great box top.

I am being very mindful of how I acquire fabric, and how much, because I don’t want to recreate the situation I got into with yarn. (That is, I bought a lot of things before I really knew what I wanted to be buying, which is a waste of both money and space.) So the only other fabric in the house is one of Sophie Hines’s great lingerie sewing kits, but I’m not quite ready for sewing tiny jersey.

Which leaves me with so many choices for the last thing! I could sew myself another pair of Pants No 1, which I wear the heck out of. I could branch out to Pants No 2, and try my hand at sewing jersey. I would get a lot of use of some layering tops, like the True Bias Ogden Cami, or maybe copy the last of my remaining, beloved Ibex t-shirts into a Lark Tee.

Or there’s always the siren song of the Wiksten Kimono

Without Suffering

One of the very first things they teach you in Zen is a little slogan:

May I and all beings be happy and free from suffering.

Two interesting things here. First, suffering does not necessarily mean something like pain or hunger or sadness. It can, but it’s more usually intended to mean the narratives that we tell ourselves that expand those things into an internal drama. For example, I am sick and have to take a day off work, and I spend the whole day being both physically sick and telling myself over and over that I am going to be so behind at work, and I am never going to catch up. My coworkers are going to think I’m just lazy, so I’ll never get that promotion I wanted. Me never getting the promotion is not my sickness; it’s my (entirely imaginary) suffering.

Secondly: As it was explained to me, the I doesn’t exist in the original; it had to be added to the translation when Buddhism came to the West. It’s not because we are selfish and insisted on putting ourselves in, but rather because we come from a cultural and religious background that values martyrdom. When westerners heard “May all beings be free of suffering,” they didn’t automatically include themselves.

Zen’s relationship to the self, the I, is complicated, and it’s beyond my beginner’s vocabulary to explain it well. In its essence, though, Zen insists that we are not separate from one another, so obviously reducing our own suffering is for the good of the world. In the cosmic scheme of things, one less instance of suffering is great, no matter whose it is, because it is all actually everyone’s. We’re also just more useful in the world when we can give it our best attention.

It seems to me [note: switching from a fairly standard, if imperfect, explanation of the teaching to MY OWN EXTRAPOLATION] that what this leaves us with is an ethical duty to attend to ourselves to the best of our ability. Not exclusively, but definitively. This is both because no one can fix our suffering as well as we can, but also because we don’t want to visit all of our garbage on to the world. If I am hungry and skip snack time, then I become a mean and hateful person who will externalize my crankiness onto other people. If I listen to the news in my car, I will be twice as annoyed when someone cuts me off in traffic. Obviously not every way that we suffer is something that we can quiet so easily, but sometimes we can, and to the extent that we can, it is an ethical good to do so.

I find this to be a really compelling way to think about self-care beyond the truisms.


The Progress We Don’t Make

This morning I dragged myself to our local Zen center for the Sunday dharma talk.

I was going to say something pleasant, like “I found myself at” or I “stopped by,” but the truth is, I was mentally kicking and screaming. I adore the Zen center, and I’ve been attending evening classes off and on there for months, but I’ve never had the courage to go during the daytime to the formal practices. I have some pretty intense anxiety about being in new places, and that’s multiplied times about 1000 if there are also rules I might not know. And Zen, bless it, has a rule for pretty much everything.

So, the thing that seemed like a great idea in a fit of insomnia was, basically, terrifying in practice.

But I did it.

You can listen to the talk here, if you’re inclined. It was lovely.

First, the speaker reminded us that Zen is, in essence, a renunciatory practice, and the thing we are most called to renounce is whatever separates us from the present moment.

I thought about my smart phone with a little pang, but the teacher’s encouragement was, much more broadly, to renounce the “tyranny of the subjunctive.” Let go of “if I could,” and “if I were” and “I should” and “if I had only.”

This is something in Zen teachings that has always seemed so funny to me. We have a dedicated practice, and yet there is also no “should” or “if.” There is no “I should be meditating.” There is only “I am meditating” or “I am not meditating.” (Joko Beck writes in Everyday Zen to the effect of “you will meditate when it seems like the only thing to be done.”)

When something is what we “should” be doing, truly, there is no longer a “should.” We just do it. There isn’t a reason to think about doing it; we go do it. In the middle of the night I stopped thinking “I should go to the Sunday dharma talk” and set my alarm clock to really go. When the clock rang, I went, and when I broke out in a cold sweat on the sidewalk, I kept walking in. It was time.

But what about the other side? Would I have ever gone to the talk, if I hadn’t spent all those weeks thinking that I “should” go? (Note that “would I have” is also a subjunctive. This is tricky.)

The thing I can say with certainty is that “should” does us a lot of psychological violence, and some of those consequences are the very opposite of what we want for ourselves. We are a rebellious species, and nagging, even our own internal version, will often stop us in our tracks. How many dieters wind up eating ice cream straight out of the carton, after weeks of “I shouldn’t eat that”? How many would-be-runners tell themselves they “should” be going on a run, until they never want to think about it again?

It also, to return to the talk’s point, forces us to live outside of the present. We eat ourselves alive over the past (if only I had…) or poison our present by imagining it to be different than it is (I should be…)

Try letting go of the burden of the progress you aren’t making, toward goals that are obviously not important to you. Instead of thinking about all of the things you could be doing, think about the thing you are doing.

To Know

Christmas 2017I want to know the value of thinking very carefully in a world that does not value thought.

I want to know the impact that an individual can have on a system that denies the individual right to exist.

I want to know if opening my own heart is good enough, when everything is so difficult for so many.

I want to know the exact price of change, so that we can gather together to pay it.


What Is the Value of Individual Effort?

A friend of mine sent me this article yesterday, and it bothered me.

The gist of this article, and dozens of others like it on almost any topic, is that individual effort in environmental causes is misplaced. It doesn’t matter if we are careful shoppers, when most waste is created by industries. The money and intellectual energy we spend picking out the best XYZ for the environment would better be spent lobbying congress. The money we spend on greener household gadgets should be spent on charity. And so on.

I’m always a bit alarmed by articles like this, because individual praxis is what we have to hold on to. Lobbying Congress for better chemical standards or cleaner power is very, very abstract stuff compared to buying recycled toilet paper instead of the other kind. Unless you are a rare kind of person, pure abstraction doesn’t do much to warm your heart at night.

It’s a kind of pragmatism that easily turns in to fatalism. It doesn’t matter what I do, this logic suggests, because Dow Chemical and Exxon do all the real damage, and my ability to affect Dow or Exxon is very small indeed. Maybe that’s true. And, yet, what value to me is that truth?

Is my reusable cup or mended jeans going to change the world? Does it make a “real” difference for there to be one less cup or pair of jeans, out of billions? Maybe, maybe not.

But, it does matter what I do. It matters to me, because it is part of my ethical interaction with the world. If nothing else, it makes me feel better to make my own individual choices well. In this political moment, sometimes an easy win is the thing that keeps you from despair, and I’m thrilled to take it.

That is: one kind action is certainly better than one unkind action, whatever the net outcome for all of humanity is.

The point this article missed making, in favor of being self-aggrandizing and “provoking” is that we need to, in fact, live in a world where we do, with softness and compassion toward ourselves, both the large things and the small ones. Calling my senator (again, to leave one more voicemail) feels like a waste of my energy; skipping a plastic bag does not. The long scope of history will say which is right. In the meantime, I still do them both, as much as I can, because doing them both is the best thing to do.




Brains are funny; you have to pay attention.

I’ve developed a set of less-shopping coping mechanisms over the years, and as I’ve gotten older I care less and less what anyone thinks of my clothes.

My wardrobe lives in two really distinct planes. I have a job that is about half a step away from requiring a business suit. (I buy most of my work clothes second hand.) The other is getting quirky these days, by local standards, although it’s pretty typical among my sustainable fashion folks: political themed T-shirts, State the Label Smocks, hand knit sweaters, tunic dresses, flat shoes, layers of things.

And then I got invited along on a business trip of my husband’s, and I was in a wardrobe panic. An actual panic. I almost bought things, just so that I would have “something to wear.”

My work clothes are Too Much, you see, and my weekend clothes are an entirely different Too Much.

Fortunately I snapped out of it before I went on some weird buying spree. (I did pick up a very justifiable new pair of shoes.)

I do not have to perform as the site of conspicuous consumption to impress my husband’s work peers.

It’s absolutely astonishing how fully we’ve inhabited those things, and how deeply they attach to our subconscious identities, no matter how fully we think we have evolved past them.