Friday, April 26, 2013

Garden Upgrade

For the past several years, Robb and I have had this thing where we attempt to do a complete garden overhaul in one day. It's a totally exhausting pain in the ass that usually begins with high spirits and a trip to Home Depot! We then haul ten bags of soil and manure into the backyard (along with a ton of other crap we decided we HAD to have), and we spend the afternoon tilling all of the soil and planting every last seedling...all in a day. Oh, and it's usually Memorial Day weekend, so it's hot. Why do we do that? 

Last week, however, it became evident that we could do things a little differently. That, in fact, we could till maybe one little section of the yard and plant pole beans (because April is, in fact, when they should be planted). Or that we could plant lettuce in a few planters. That we could build shelves and a fence. Why wait till a sweltering Saturday in May when we can be tilling and building in the cool of a 55-degree afternoon?

And then, I saw this thing on Pinterest. And this is why I love Pinterest. Because you can pin something cool and then remember later that you want to make it and then you have the link right there that tells you how to do it and you just do it. The thing I wanted to make? This hanging plant shelf. So simple! Just a plank of wood tied up by rope! A baby could make this.
However, I did need the wood. (And here's where it gets sort of cosmically strange and Robb starts to roll his eyes.) One morning last week I thought to myself, I bet I'll find the wood I need on the street today. And then sure enough, after work, I was walking by Robb's bar and there was this big old 5-foot long beautiful plank of wood sitting outside. I picked it up and dragged it into the bar (and then Robb rode it home on his bike later, which looked sort of amazing). And then I shit you not, about 15 minutes after I found the wood, on the very same walk home, I found these trellises above sitting on my street a few doors down. Fences!, I thought, and then I picked up the whole bunch of them and walked them home. You guys, there was a lot of garden kismet happening that night. And here's what we did with it.
So, we untangled the trellises and laid them on their sides, and then we attached posts to each trellis edge so that we could wedge them into the ground to make a big, sturdy fence. Gone was the sweet (yet decidedly ineffective) little lattice fence we made last summer. Our new fence feels fancy and official, as though we have a serious homestead going on. I want to get horses now, or maybe goats.
For the hanging plant shelf, my vision was to install it under the overhang right outside of our kitchen door and have it be a home for the herb garden. In summers past, the herb garden has lived deep in the yard, so if you're cooking pasta for dinner and want to grab a handful of basil, you need to put on shoes, grab a flashlight, and hope you don't step in dog poop. But now, these perils no longer haunt us! The herbs are right outside the door, enabling us to cook barefoot once again. To hang the shelf, Robb simply filed some grooves at two ends of the plank so the rope can grip it, and then we looped the ropes through the supporting structure of the overhang. Done. I love it.

At that point, we made mojitos from our new mint plant and called it a day.
The next day, however, we couldn't resist going out to buy some flowers. Robb had a vision. Inspired by the hanging herb shelf, he decided he wanted to take a couple long pieces of wood that had been kicking around in our yard and hang those, too, making narrow little shelves. Along these shelves, we potted tons of individual little flowers. This fence was once where we propped up old, splintery wood. Now it is a haven for marigolds!
And that, my friends, is where we stopped. We built fences, hung shelves, potted some flowers, and we were done. Tomatoes and peppers will come another Saturday, probably in a few weeks. And someday we might get around to patching the lawn. But for now, I'm liking this plan of spreading out the upgrades. Of getting inspired but not burning out. And my favorite part of all? Walking down the street holding an armful of flowers, with a big, bright Gerbera daisy tucked behind my ear. That, I must say, is my happy place. Me on Sunday afternoon with all the hopefulness of spring in my arms.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

New Top, New Day

You know how you sometimes hear people say things like "stay in the moment"? Or "enjoy the moment"? Or "savor the moment"? These people are usually yoga teachers or life coaches or a meme on Facebook or Oprah or your aunt on your wedding day. And you know they mean well, and you know that they're totally right. Yes! You say to yourself. I shall live today in the moment! And then you proceed to spend much of the rest of the day rummaging through moments in the past or daydreaming about moments in the future. 

Well, that's how I do it anyway.

I've actually never really understood how I'm supposed to go about being "in the moment." Is there a trick or a breathing exercise I can do? Perhaps a vitamin? Recently, I caught myself over the course of a single day doing the exact opposite of what it probably means to live in the moment. I started the day by waking up, wishing I could stay in bed longer, and then I checked my work email on my phone as I walked to work (um, you know you're going to work...where you will be looking at email all day, right?), and then the whole time I was at work, I was wishing that I could leave and go to my yoga class after work, and then the second my yoga class got challenging, I found myself daydreaming about the tall glass of soda water with a splash of cranberry that I would have at Robb's bar after class, and then the whole way to the bar, where I would finally get my soda water, I felt myself impatiently planning what I would have for dinner, and then on the way home to cook dinner, I ate a whole bag of Pirate's Booty, unable to wait until I got home to start eating, and then I got home and cooked dinner and looked at my iPhone the whole time I ate it, even though a show was on TV (a show I LIKE, at that), and then I delayed going to bed until way late, because now, ironically, I did not want to go to sleep, even though at the beginning of the day, all I wanted in the world was to stay asleep.

Not. In. The. Moment. People.

Why am I telling you this? Well, because this top up here, the one I'm wearing above...this top is the one thing I can say I did lately that was made "in the moment."
Do you ever have fabric laying around that's burning a hole in your pocket? And then the second you figure out how you want to use it, it's like OH MY GOD I HAVE TO MAKE THAT RIGHT NOW. That was how I felt about this top. I was sitting at home on a Thursday night, the paper pattern was already cut out in my size, and there was this coral shot cotton, washed and folded on top of my printer. (Because I'm messy and sometimes things just sit on the printer.) Before I knew it, I had pulled out the cutting mat and the tailor's chalk, the fancy scissors and the rotary cutter, the gridded ruler and the measuring tape. Anthony Bourdain talked about the Philippines in the background and I missed the whole thing. Snip snip snip, happily I cut out the pattern. (Also, I apparently don't ever actually watch TV.)
And what is this pattern, you ask? Well, I'm afraid it's a secret. For the next six months anyway. It's a pattern that the fabulous Jenny Gordy of Wiksten designed for a new book that Lena Corwin is writing and that I am editing. The pattern is one of those maddeningly simple affairs where you literally take two of your own measurements (waist and hip), do just the tiniest bit of math, and then sketch out your own pattern sheet drawn to those dimensions. I love these kinds of patterns. They're so elegant in their simplicity, and yet they require you to slow down a bit and sew very careful seams. Straight seams, in this project, are crucial.  

The first night, I cut out the fabric (one hour). The next night, I sewed the straps, the armholes and neckline, and joined the front and back into one piece (two hours). The next day, I added the drawstring and hemmed the bottom, and I was done (one hour). 
Then, though it was a chilly Sunday, I put on the top and wore it out...with a sweater and a jacket. And though most of it was covered up, I knew that I was wearing my new favorite creation. I looked down at my lap and admired the coral shot cotton, faintly glimmering in the sun. Oh, it feels good to want to do something and enjoy doing it while you're doing it. Let that be a lesson to me (especially since, just moments ago, I got distracted while thinking about making a bowl of popcorn and turning on Project Runway). There is something to be said about losing yourself in what you're making, and not wanting to be any other place in the world while you're making it.


Friday, April 12, 2013

One Year Later

For those who are curious about why people would spend time knitting sweaters for babies, I am here to tell you why. This is why. This little girl right here. And actually, all little girls everywhere. And little boys, too. Every single stitch is worth it if only for the moment when your best girlfriend sends a photo over the great divide of our nation, which bounces up to a satellite and lands inside of your phone, which makes a little buzz as it bounces against your desk at work while you're eating a burrito bowl, and you look at the picture and let your face spread into the widest grin you can imagine.

One year ago, I had just begun knitting this sweater for baby Frida. Robb and I had returned from a trip to Spain and I came back to normal life with renewed vigor. I bought a skein of superwash Merino on my way home from work and squeezed it on the subway, thinking about Megan, then seven months pregnant, wondering how this one little squishy ball of yarn could possibly work up into a whole sweater. It was springtime and I could not wait to start knitting. And when I wrote this post a year ago on the day that Frida was born, I could only then just barely imagine her existence. I knew she no longer lived inside Megan, but I had not yet met her. I had no idea she was going to have the most amused smile of any child I've ever met--everything is riotously hilarious to her--and that her eyes would squint like Popeye when she's happy. I had no way of knowing she would like Mary Poppins so much, and at such a young age. And I had no clue that she would like to be carried in a harness slung across Megan's chest, but that she prefers to be facing out, examining the world as they walk together. It's amazing how much you can learn in a year.

I was talking with my friend Deb last night about how all of our little choices lead to bigger ones, and how, over time, you can see them shaping your life. Deciding to turn off the television, for instance, is a small thing, but it is also an act of creative defiance. Not that I don't like TV! Sometimes after a long day at work it is the best thing in the world. But most of the time when the TV is on, it's because I'm bored, not because I'm exhausted, and there really are better ways I could be using my time. I feel the same way about playing solitaire on my phone--a game I have had addictive problems with my entire life. It's a time killer, it's what I do when I feel like fidgeting and I don't feel like using my brain. I would be better off gazing at stars, or even removing pills from a sweater, cutting my toenails, opening the mail, eating popcorn, whatever. But killing time? Oh, what a dreadful phrase.

Last year at this time when I came home from Spain, I made two other choices in addition to starting Frida's sweater: I signed up for an 8-week pottery class and I started a regular yoga practice. Are either of these things miraculous in their own right? Well, no. Not at all actually. Am I now planning to become a professional potter or a yoga instructor? Nope! Not in a million years. But what did happen as a result of these choices were two things:
1) The yoga classes reminded me that I am mortal and that I should probably take care of the one precious, wild, and unpredictable body that I have. I don't always know what's going on in there, and I certainly don't know when it's going away, so I guess it is my duty to do some maintenance. But the best part is that, one year later, I see that it's not just a phase. I think that (gasp!) I may have actually changed my life. (And for a person who hasn't exercised regularly since she was a sophomore in high school, this is a fairly mindblowing notion.)
2) The pottery class reminded me how good it felt to be creative in a new way, to experiment with a craft in which I was not necessarily good. Like, at all. But more importantly, it proved to me that I have extra time in my life to be creative. When the 8-week class was over, I didn't sign up for another one. But I did decide to devote time each week to writing. Because if I had time to devote to a craft I wasn't necessarily passionate about (or even good at, for that matter), why not instead use that time to focus on a craft that I am passionate about?

See, things change. This is one year in which I can look back and see a marked difference between where I was then and where I am now. This year did not blend and blur. Rather, it meandered forward, getting me closer to becoming the person I want to be (or perhaps the person I have always been?). And I'm not positive, but I have a funny feeling Megan could say the same thing. And Frida? Well, she wasn't even a person a year ago! So she's definitely becoming the person she wants to be (or, perhaps, that she has always been). But it's amazing, isn't it? How much can change in just a year.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Sometimes You Make Cookies

"I went into the kitchen. I love food. The clarity of it, the direct pleasure. I love it simple, absolutely fresh and freshly cooked. At my worst, like now, when nothing makes sense to myself, I'll cook something as a way of forcing order back into chaos. As a way of re-establishing myself, at least in this one thing. It steadies my hands." --From The PowerBook by Jeanette Winterson 

I made these cookies the weekend before last. It was a Friday and I left work knowing that I was going home angry. I was going home disappointed. It's been a rough couple of weeks. And though I read myriad blogs where the author bares her soul, telling the world every last bloody detail of her latest crisis, I'm not going to do that here. And it's beside the point really. Here are the two things you need to know: 1) I recently made myself vulnerable in a creative pursuit and came up short. 2) I am a little lost right now.

These things are okay. I will be okay. We will all be okay. But in those moments when you are processing it all and searching for your place in the universe, it is completely normal to not feel okay. And that is when you bake cookies. 

As I packed up my bag to leave work that Friday, I decided I wanted something complicated I could sink my teeth into. Something I could control, that I could do slowly and precisely. And when I was done, I wanted to have something I could devour in the fattiest of ways. I wanted to execute perfectly and make myself sick. Which was how I wound up spending three days making homemade Samoa Girlscout cookies, which are photographed beautifully along with the recipe at Just a Taste.

Day 1: I made the cookie dough on Friday night after I finished dinner. It's a simple shortbread, but even that has many steps. There is the sifting and measuring and mixing, and then you need to make  two neat balls and wrap them up in plastic. (I wrapped mine twice, not wanting the spices from the leftover Indian food to waft their way into the dough.) I drank a glass of wine and let an hour pass. I changed into my pajamas and then I rolled out the dough, thin as can be without being too thin. I used a pint glass to punch out the large circles, and a smaller cookie cutter to remove the middle. Collect the scraps to make a new ball, roll it out, punch and repeat--I moved like a machine, letting flour dust the front of my yoga pants as I leaned against the counter. When the cookies came out of the oven I decided I was tired and went to bed.

Day 2: I woke up Saturday morning and made an iced coffee. Today will be better, I said, and I sprinkled coconut onto a cookie sheet to toast. But the caramel candies took a long time to melt down and I started to lose my patience. Not that there was anywhere I needed to be or anything else I needed to be doing. Sometimes, I think, you just get tired of stirring. But they did melt, and when that happened, I painted caramel onto each cookie with a spoon--the binder, I am told, that keeps the topping from falling off--and to the rest of the caramel I added the coconut, creating a sticky clumpy mixture that burned my hands as I pressed it onto each cookie's surface. But there's no other way to do it, really. You have to pick up that mixture before it hardens and press down firmly. You have to show that cookie who is boss. 

Exhausted from my efforts, my husband and I rode our bikes eight whole blocks to a place called the Spritzenhaus, where we drank beer, ate hot pretzels, and played Jenga. Later we went home and tried to melt down the chocolate, but it buckled up on us. A whole bag of chocolate chips ruined on a Saturday afternoon. (Hint: Don't use a double-boiler when drunk.)

Day 3: I woke up and could not believe those cookies were still sitting on my counter. I pulled boots over my yoga pants and put on a long coat, and then I went to the store to buy more chocolate, which I melted in the microwave thank you very much. We had a friend coming over and I wanted to force cookies on him--eat the damn things, get them out of this house. And so I held them by their crispy cookie sides and dunked their bottoms in chocolate, letting it harden for an hour before I flipped them over and drizzled more chocolate across the top. 

Oh, the things we'll do to force order back into chaos, as Ms. Winterson so wonderfully puts it. (Which makes me wonder, in fact, which way she actually means it. Does she want to take an orderly situation and make it more chaotic? Or does she want to force chaos into an orderly state? Knowing Jeanette Winterson, this ambiguity was intentional.)

All I know is that when you undertake a project of this magnitude--during Girlscout cookie season, no less, when the factory-made versions are plentiful--I do believe it is a testament to how far you will go to distract yourself, calm yourself, and find yourself. And finally, hopefully, dust the flour off your yoga pants and move on.