It’s funny how much of life is out of focus.
I feel like I live as awake as I can, aware that it all might end with a fast bus and a mis-step. And still, most of the days feel like a blur of things-to-do or moving from one task to another or listening to something while thinking about something else. We miss so much of this life. I do. I’m guessing you do too.
Our kid’s hilarious. She has a long retinue of imaginary friends, whose names she likes to chant when she’s fighting sleep. She listens to everything we say and then we listen to our stories come back in slightly surreal form through her. She’s starting to play with language in a way that moves me deeply, dipping into song play with her phrases and focusing on sounds instead of sense. And every night, I listen to her talking to herself in her room before she reluctantly falls into sleep. Every part of her day the interactions with other kids, the food we had for dinner, the little moments of trauma or surprise come out in her steady stream of stories.
She’s telling stories. She’s floating the words in the air of her bedroom, watching them fall onto her little pink stove. But she’s telling stories.
This is why I love writing so much. I may go through a day feeling fumbly, floundering. However, I can always see little spots of light when I turn around and open my eyes.
We’re pretty damned lucky, this little family of ours. We go adventuring often.
Lu knows the drill now. We pack the night before while she is asleep (sometimes) or the morning of the flight while she piles one stuffed animal after another into her tiny thrift-store suitcase with the faded dragonflies and the tag for the trip to Disneyland another kid took. Danny and I wonder once again if we are bringing too many clothes. (The answer is yes.) We grab the charge cords for the phone at the last moment and go to the car. We drive the length of the island to the ferry dock, waving goodbye to the the trees, which are bound to be more full or bare when we return, depending on the time of the year. One of us drops the other adult and Lu at the ferry dock, lugging all the suitcases to the bench outside and then drives the car up to the parking lot. Lu dances and skips, running back and forth between the entrance to the ferry and our sagging black suitcase. We watch up the hill for the tiny figure of Daddy making his way toward us. Hopefully, he doesn’t have to run.
Inevitably, I’m clutching my travel coffee mug, which I intended to leave in the car, so I have to carry it around with me everywhere on the trip.
We carry our bags onto the ferry, Lu dragging her suitcase behind her. The ferry workers always smile at her serious intent. She’s going to be helpful. We pile into the little elevator and let her push the button. She wants us to run around the ferry, playing hide and seek. One of us sits with the bags. And then we pile back in, down to the car deck, and walk our bags to the bus at the end of the dock. Or, we call a cab.
It’s off to the airport we go.
A few weeks ago, we were off to New York.
The night we arrived, a dear friend of mine texted me to say, “Welcome back to the city of your birth!”
I love New York City, madly. This has been so well documented that there’s no need for me to put links to past pieces or photos. The first year I lived there, it seems, they should have put me on the posters. My big grin on a I heart NY poster saying, “Shauna says, ‘Come and visit!’ If you’re lucky, you’ll love it as much as I do.”
By the time I left New York, in the summer of 2001, I had lived in Manhattan for four years (with 6 months of that in London). I always joked that time in New York is like dog years. So really, I lived there for 28 years. I was, without a doubt, a New Yorker, even if I lived in Seattle now.
Still, I left because I couldn’t see the sky easily enough. There were moments I was surrounded by concrete and nothing growing. I wanted space and silence and trees.
Whenever I go back for a visit, I see that I forgot to look for the light hard enough. It’s there.
Still, to be honest, this trip to New York was harder than I imagined it to be.
Our darling 4-year-old? Well, let’s just say that trips like this don’t suit her style. She’s remarkably chipper, a little trooper who traipses around the city and uses every subway trip as a chance to study the faces. Since she was born, we’ve been to New York many times. And each time, we just slung her in a stroller or held her hand as she toddled around a corner to our next destination. Easy peasy. World traveler.
We hadn’t been to NY in over a year. A lot changes between 3 and 4.
She has an entire social network on the island, with kids from two preschools to love. As much as she adores us and I love how sweet and tender 4 can be she needs those friends and those interactions. A week away was just too long this time.
Also, as active as Lucy is, she’s not Manhattan-ready with her walking. It always takes longer to walk from Broadway to Central Park than I remember. She’s good about saying what she needs, which is why she often said to us, “Mama, I am feeling a little concerned about all the people around me right now.” (Fair enough. We live on a small, rural island the same length as Manhattan with fewer than 10,000 people on it.) And so, she wanted to be carried. Danny and I took turns carrying her through the Natural History Museum, in the Village, from the A train stop at 145th to the friends’ building where we were staying, and most everywhere else. All this while insisting on wearing the too-tight high heels her friends Lucy and Edie gave her, the ones that gave her blisters and made her feet hurt. So she needed to be carried even farther.
My arms have just started to recover.
The fact is, it was this visit that made me realize New York may be the city of my birth but it’s no longer my home. It’s a hard place to be with an active kid who would much rather stay at the playground with the boy she befriended within 5 minutes than be dragged to another lunch with an editor.
Our long New York trips are gone for awhile. If there are business trips to be made, from now on I have to take them by myself.
I knew this definitively when we were in the Saveur offices, visiting some friends who work on the website. Helen introduced us around the office and in the kitchen. (Oh my goodness, that kitchen.) Lucy had just endured one lunch with a work colleague and was hustled to this meeting. She kept tugging on my pants when I was introduced to editors, singing her pleas for me to notice her, starting to fall apart at the seams at the idea of one more boring meeting. This is how I met James Oseland, the editor-in-chief of Saveur and one of my favorite people in the food world: standing in his overly warm office, sweating, with a four-year-old on my hip, tugging at my nose and saying, “Mama, I need your attention right now!”
Great. James Oseland will remember me as the sweaty woman with the obstreperous child.
But then I look back on this New York, this wonderful chaotic exhausting trip, and I see the light.
The dinner party with friends gathered in a small apartment, with kids running through the living room shouting, “We’re going to put on a show in 5 minutes!”
The breakfast we shared our first morning there, takeout from Daniel Boulud’s place on Broadway, and the hummus with smoked paprika and whole chickpeas that made me wake up more than the coffee did.
The long evening we spent with my dear friend Meri, after we eschewed the idea of yet another restaurant and raided Zabars, then climbed into a cab toward Harlem with bags of food. We ate salami and cheese, baba ganoush, gluten-free crackers and good chocolate at the low table in our friend Kim’s apartment and talked until late in the evening.
The languid morning we shared with our friend Kim, who had returned to her apartment with husband and kids the night before. For once on the trip, we didn’t feel the need to move and do and see. We let Lu watch a little Mr. Bean while we sipped coffee and shared stories with Kim while the sunlight filtered through the windows.
The crazy cab rides we had all over the city, including the incoherent guy from the Bronx who tried to convert us to Jesus, the Indian man who drove in his bare feet, the young Russian woman on her 3rd day of the job who asked directions from us, and the amazingly quiet man who drove us to the airport the last day on side streets entirely. He didn’t hit the freeway once. We drove through sections of Bed-Stuy I had never seen, including a 20-block neighborhood of Orthodox Jews that felt like Israel, followed in one block by an entirely Dominican community. When we reached the airport, I said how much I had enjoyed that ride. No one had ever taken me to the airport by side streets. He grinned and said, “That’s the real New York. I wanted you to see it.”
I’m so glad we did.
And it’s photographs that help me look back most clearly. Today, seeing this photo of Lucy on her tiptoes, exuberant at being sprayed by the water at a playground on a hot afternoon? I wanted to go back with her, to show her more.
I still love this New York, this crazy place that sells fruit and vegetables on the sidewalk. (I’ve always wanted a mango covered in car exhaust fumes.) Where people clamor for the outdoor seating in summer, their seats three feet from the curb and the people passing by.
This is hope, right here, selling bananas and oranges to any of dozens of different kinds of people who walk by. Papayas unite them.
We were in New York because I had been asked to speak at the Longhouse Food Writers’ Revival, the event that gathered food writers of all ages and backgrounds to a refurbished barn in the middle of a field, outside of a small town in upstate New York.
The first night, we sampled charcuterie made by a local butcher. The hungry women (and the couple of men attending) descended.
I’m sorry if you didn’t get to try any of the duck prosciutto. I think our kid ate most of it.
And there were pickled things: beans, cucumbers, garlic. It would have been a mighty night.
Well, except that the chefs from the restaurant in Brooklyn who were supposed to cook dinner for everyone gathered showed up three hours late. We ate dinner by candelight in the barn, the darkness outside deep, and everyone there bowed her heads and dived in with spoons. We were pretty hungry by that time.
The same thing happened the next day. The folks roasting the pig, which slowly turned on the spit all day, flecking ash into the sky and leaving our clothes smelling of smoke and pig fat? Well, they started late too. By the time dinner came, after an intense day of conversations, disagreements, and ideas that floated to the ceiling without ever coming down to the ground? We needed to eat. We ate in darkness once again.
Did any of that matter in the end? Not really.
Instead, looking back, what I remember are the spots of light, the intense connections with friends I know well and friends whose words I have been reading for years without ever meeting them. There were Americanos on demand in the morning and warm corn tortillas in the evening. There were clutches of conversations in the big field, conversations that mattered. There were poems read, films shown, interviews conducted, connections made between words and the attempt to make sense of them. There was music and a small girl dancing. There was a big red barn, freshly painted. There was the chance I had to speak about writing from the place of not knowing. There were young interns earnestly doing work around the clock to make all this happen. There was an incredible woman, a force of nature, who took on too much because her heart dictated that she try it all, a woman who made all this happen.
There was even gluten-free pizza from the wood-fired oven.
This was, in retrospect, an event filled with light.
That’s the thing. Life can’t always be in focus when you live it. Sometimes, you just have to write it.
This is why I believe firmly that writing matters, particularly food writing, whether you wrote only for print magazine for decades or have been writing online for a few years. (This was the theme of the Longhouse Revival, this false divide between old and new media.) We all have stories, stories that need to be shared. Good stories have a way of finding the people who need to hear them.
I feel like, in a way, we’re all just selling our fruit on a crowded New York street. Most people will walk by without looking. But sometimes, someone stops because she spotted the bright glimmer of a mango in the cement-colored world, and she hungered. I just brush off the exhaust, polish it off, and offer it to her hands.
And after I’ve boxed up all the remaining fruit, close up shop, and am pushing my cart back home, I can see the day more clearly. It all comes into focus then. It really was a good day.
One of the women who spoke at the Longhouse Revival interviewed a Mexican chef who talked about what tasted like home for her. She said something I had never heard before. “I have tasted guacamoles but none of them tasted just right to me. My mother always rubbed her hands with oregano before she used the mortar and pestle to make the guacamole.” My brain perked up. Oregano-scented hands, squeezing the lime?
Today we tried it. We put out all the ingredients we like, this time with fresh tomatoes since they’re still impossibly somehow in season here. And I rubbed fresh oregano on my hands before I tore the cilantro leaves and put them into the bowl. I touched everything. I slowed down. Danny and I ate this on the back porch, the sun still impossibly somehow shining here. And we talked about scary things, about friends who were diagnosed with cancer, and our fears. This guacamole helped.
That’s the thing about recipes. Even if I work hard to make something you’ll like, you won’t have the same experience I did. Maybe your best guacamole was in Mexico on your honeymoon. Maybe it was made at the table while loud Mariachi music played in the restaurant. Maybe it was nothing other than soft avocado and salt, but you were hungry and the food tasted good.
So I’m not going to give you a recipe for guacamole today. That seems pretty silly to me.
Instead, I wanted to show you these ingredients, maybe to inspire you to make your own.
Mostly, though, I want to hear your stories. What were the bright spots of light in your day?