[ASIDE: Reader, I’m not happy with the aesthetics of my blog posts. I tried to make the font larger for better readability, but then things looked even more catty-wonkus. If there are any WordPress mavens out there, please drop me a line, yo?]
At the end of last summer, I wrote a blog post called “Family Vacation: Same Crap, Different Location.” We’d gone back East for three weeks, only to have both of my parents end up in the hospital. Sammy was in his biting phase. Ben was working too much. And since the summer experience here in NorCal before we went was kind of a nothing burger, the whole summer felt like a reality-TV show about The Sandwich Generation, starring yours truly as the haggard 40-something mother of two whiny children.
I don’t know if I had all of that in mind when I planned this summer, or if we just got lucky, but I’m sitting here of a Thursday feeling genuinely sad that school is starting again on Monday. It’s been a fantastic summer for our family, if not quiiiiiite as amazing as the carefree summers of my youth, then still the best one could expect with two children. It’s been a summer of growth and hard work and bonding and fun, of optimism and realism and good fortune.
?> One. I had great boundaries.
Most academics have the summer off. I do not, but my summer schedule is fairly flexible, and I made sure it stayed that way. I won’t reveal all my tricks of the trade, but suffice to say, I managed to have one of my best work summers yet, by being present with my students but clear about my boundaries. I didn’t get roped into drama. I LOVED my students this summer, you guys. They were smart and engaged and funny and grateful. Who knew?
?> Two. I didn’t overindulge.
Bald-faced lie. Yes I did. I had approximately 78* glasses of booze, spread over a series of fun nights: on camping trips, by the pool, in the afternoon, at gigs, every night in Maine. I also ate delicious food all summer long, had ice cream occasionally, and binge-read novels.
But I ALSO maintained some good habits: I stretched and did my back exercises EVERY morning. I exercised a ton, and I still got up 3-4 mornings a week to write. Woot! That leaves me going into fall without that slightly terrifying feeling that there is a very rude awakening coming in the next ten days.
?> Three. I was spontaneous.
The invitation from my college friend came unexpectedly: did I want to visit her at her cabin in the Sierras that weekend? I’m not great with last-minute plans, but when I saw only one thing on the calendar, I thought, why not? I’m so glad I did. One thing that’s been sorely missing from my life since I had kids is real time in the wilderness, not just sweet urban hikes but being in landscapes that smell like trees, where there’s no electricity, where you hear owls at night. L and I drove three hours up, up, up into the mountains. We hiked in Desolation Wilderness, swam and kayaked in a frigid and beautiful lake, and saw a bald eagle. The only cell coverage to be found was at the top of a steep outcropping of rocks. Maybe if we all had to make that kind of effort to check Facebook, the world would be a different place.
?> Four. I lowered my expectations.
And in doing so, I also raised them. To save money and because, frankly, he wasn’t too excited about it, I didn’t enroll L in week after week of camp. But instead of sitting around reading Calvin & Hobbes like last year, he rode his bike to friends’ houses. He explored at the creek. He helped us plan a camping trip. This summer, my son turned ten and became more independent, too. Summer is nothing if not a time for growth and change, to recharge before the next big thing(s). (Last year of elementary! A new class to plan and teach for me! Preschool!)
?> Five. I counted my blessings.
Not everyone gets to spend two weeks on an island in Maine and then fly to England for five days. Not everyone gets to have three amazing weekends away in California. Color me incredibly grateful for my charmed life, for my community, for my friends, for my flexible summers, and for my parents, who don’t mind how long we stay and who always help with the plane tickets.
And while I wax rhapsodic about how great the last few months have been, I also remind myself that there are children in cages along the border, reproductive rights being threatened, and endangered species being taken off the list. Part of a summer recharge is gathering the energy to return to real life refreshed and ready to fight for what you love.
How was YOUR summer? Nothing burger, or magic? I’d love to hear from you.
Didja notice I skipped a week of Vegetarian Dinners That Don’t Suck? Forgive me. It’s summer, and we wrapped up the school year with a two-night camping trip in the Sierra foothills, came home for two nights and went camping again. So last week was a wash. Camping with two small kids is no small feat, it turns out, and the first trip was sort of medium successful. S. loved the tent, but also decided to wake up at two a.m. and harass me and his brother for three hours the first night. We managed to pick the noisiest campsite on the entire gorgeous lake. The people next door were jerks. Etcetera. But it was still lovely to swim, and the days were hot and dry and spectacular.
Funny story: we rented a Jetta to get up there, since our car is on the fritz, and we had so much stuff that the kids could barely see out the front. There were duffels and coolers and sleeping bags at their feet and between them and everywhere. So when we arrived and B was hauling things out of the car, he asked, “what’s in this giant bag?”
By the second trip, we had our systems down (Read: brought fewer stuffies) and it helped that camping up in fancy Healdsburg on a friend’s parents’ property was more like glamping. A pool, a lot of floatation devices, some imbibing, kids running wild?it all made for better sleep, easier days, and more fun. And we had really delicious, easy food both nights, big old communal dinners that are just what summer is all about.
Herewith, my last vegetarian dinner that doesn’t suck, a delightful and easy summer meal that’s always a crowd pleaser.
This recipe is a combo of something I?ve been making for years and an amazing uncooked sauce my sister-in-law J?yep! The one with the chickens and the Gado Gado?made for me once.
3 very large ripe tomatoes (heirloom or beefsteak), or the equivalent (several different colors looks nice)
1 cup or so beautiful sweet yellow or orange cherry tomatoes
1 bunch fresh basil, chopped
2 T. capers
1-2 cloves of garlic
1 container little fresh mozzarella balls or equivalent amount of another melty cheese you like: ricotta salata, brie, etc.
A fragrant peppery green extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
Maple syrup, agave, honey, or sugar (optional; see Note)
Grated lemon rind (optional; see Note)
1 pound of pasta, gluten-free or regular (fresh pasta would also be divine)
Chop heirlooms into various sizes and shapes (all within the realm of bite-sized) and place in a bowl. Halve the cherry tomatoes and add them, too. Squeeze through a press (or mash with the side of a knife) the garlic and add that, along with the chopped basil, the capers, salt and pepper to taste, and a generous glug of olive oil. Toss gently, let sit for 15 to 20 minutes, then taste again. You want a nice mix of garlicky, salty, tangy, and sweet. If the tomatoes are too tangy, you?ll need to soften the flavor with a little bit of sweetener. If they?re very sweet and you want more tang, go ahead and grate in some lemon rind.
Add your mozzarella or cheese of choice, sliced in half, and let marinate for another 15 minutes or while you?re cooking your pasta.
Cook pasta until al dente in salted water. Toss with a bit of olive oil and your sauce. Correct seasoning and serve.
Note: You can actually marinate the tomato mixture for hours on end and leave in on the counter with a cloth over the bowl. I would still add the cheese towards the end, but do give the cheese a little time to absorb delicious flavors. This can, of course, also be made without the cheese for a vegan dinner.
A word on gluten-free pastas, for they are not created alike! Hands down, the best one is Jovial brand. That is all.
The other day in the car we listened to this Robot or Not podcast about whether it’s better to have changing seasons or nice weather all the time. The New Englander in me immediately said “seasons,” though if I’m honest, I haven’t terribly missed those frigid Februaries and wet Marches too much since I moved West. (Fall colors, on the other hand? My tragic lost love.) I think the thing about living in a place like northern California, where the temperature changes maybe 25 degrees max, all year, is to be super in tune with the small changes: the few fall colors we get? Oh how I appreciate them. That chill in winter, when it’s below 40 in the morning? I’ll take it. And what passes for summer, and me having had the wherewithal to get up at six a.m. to write for an hour in that clear morning light FOR THREE WEEKS STRAIGHT NOW?
Yes, yes, yes.
Right now, in early June, we’ve got the warmest weather we’ll see all year?until late September, that is, when we get a second stretch of heat. In the middle? Fog. So when we have these warm summer days, it’s important to seize them:?the late light, the abundance of flowers, and mostly, the many fruits in our amazing garden.
And in the stores, already, blueberries and peaches and nectarines and basil like you wouldn’t believe.
So I have to admit that while?I was all about meal planning and being organized and cooking ahead?and while overall this has been such a smart move?lately I’m into the easiest and loveliest of summer meals: a salad, an artichoke, a protein, a pile of rice. I’m stocking my kitchen with summer’s bounty, tons of which comes from my very own garden, and then I’m seeing what happens next.
It’s kind of like writing a poem. A summer one.
Speaking of which: I’ve got a mini book tour going! I read in Santa Barbara last week, and I’ll be in Davis, California, tonight. Next week, I’ll feature at the Voz sin Tinta reading series in San Francisco. Over the summer I’ll hit Portland, Maine, and I’m hoping for the other Portland in the fall. You can stay up to date on my comings-and-goings on my new Little Prayers Book Tour page.??
And if you wanted a copy of my book and haven’t yet gotten one, The Bookmobile is coming! I’ll be signing and sending books in the month of June. Drop me a line via my contact page for details.
And wherever you are, enjoy a gorgeous summer meal. (Unless you’re in the southern hemisphere, I suppose.)
A few weeks ago, I posted this blog post. It was all about my need to get off my butt and get some real writing done, my sense that the space?I’d rented?needed to serve as an imperative to produce, produce, produce?and about my difficulty getting started, in part because it was summer, hot and gorgeous, and my work schedule had drastically slowed down. But also because after spending eight years writing a memoir, and being in that limbo state before?the route to publishing it has become clear,?it was hard to even think about The Next Big Thing with a clear head.?After I published that blog post, I got a few comments of congratulations on starting a new project and some encouragement to keep going.
My kid flipping the bird
And then I encountered some resistance from two people: one, my friend slowmamma, who is on a one-woman crusade against the American rat race.?The other was a therapist I really should be seeing more often. Slowmamma reminded me that the nice weather wouldn’t stick around, and that I should enjoy it while it lasted.?The therapist reminded me that when any project is finished, it’s essential to take some time to sit with it. She talked about how, in the school of thought she follows, after any big life event (like finishing a memoir and an accompanying book proposal) there is a stage called “completion” and a stage called “rest,” and that if you shortchange the rest, you really don’t feel the completion. Take a break, she said.
For about two days, I kept the words of?these wise women close. I reminded myself that breaks are good. I tried to quiet the voices telling me to keep pushing?even when I wasn’t feeling it. I meditated. I sat in the sun and thought. I fully believed that I would honor the promise I had made in the therapist’s office: I was going to take a week off from writing. I would read some comedy, watch some comedy, jot down ideas?as they came. Freewrite, perhaps. Rest.?I said that on a Thursday.
But I lied. The following Monday, I’d convinced myself that I was ready to start work again. I tweeted that I was going to write 750 words a day, no matter what. I opened a new file, and I started again on the novel. I fantasized about having a completed?draft in six months. I diligently put down those daily 750 words for about a week, though they seemed to come more and more painfully each day, and then something happened: the words just wouldn’t come anymore. So I wrote a poem instead. I stared into space, I washed some dishes, I cleaned the bathroom, I checked my email, I graded papers, and I wondered if I should have honored that rest period after all. And then I began to feel intensely guilty.
All summer, trying to write and failing to write, trying to give up and failing to allow myself to give up,?I have been ruminating on what it is I might be afraid of. Put most grandiosely, I think it’s fear that if I take a break, if I don’t produce, produce, produce,?I will disappear off the face of the earth and never write again. That I’ll disrupt this trajectory I have wanted to believe myself on, a trajectory where I’m publishing regularly and going to writing conferences and connecting to other writers and “building a platform” and adding likes! And followers! And friends! And fans! And while some of this is the kind of garden-variety, free-floating anxiety I always feel when the writing isn’t happening, it’s also what we 21st-century writers are told we have to do if we ever want to get ahead, if we ever want to be widely read: Don’t. Ever. Stop.
I do want to be widely read, but lately I’m finding it hard to swallow the bitter pill?that?an act of creativity has become so tethered to consumerism and to getting ahead. When did it become the reality?that books are merely “content” to be produced? When did I begin to feel that there weren’t enough hours in a day?or years in a life to explore, to try new things, to think a little, to make mistakes, to pause, because if I did I might not get enough, say, Twitter followers? Didn’t I just blog a few months ago about not wasting my life??Why do I feel like I’m wasting my life by worrying so damn much about whether I’m?producing enough?
I don’t know, but I do know I’m not the only one who’s?obsessed. The voices are everywhere, and they’re loud.?On She Writes the other day, the blog post The Art of Submission debated the finer points of quitting “being” a writer (in other words, stopping submitting and platforming and just, well, writing). No, the blogger declared. She would not do that. She needed to keep submitting, to write like her life depended on it. She needed to remain hungry?to be published. And then there were the comments; one reader reminded everyone to push through and keep going at all costs?”try for 175 rejections!” she intoned. “Here I go.” Meanwhile, over on Twitter, every second tweet is about building your platform or improving your brand. Whole businesses are built on marketing for authors, social networking for writers, blogging to change your life. How to get more followers, more likes, more tweets. Even my trusted writer friends are at it: “What’s your hustle?” one asked me the other day. ?In that moment, I just wanted to hustle myself to my bed, pull the covers over my head, and sleep?for days.
I’m not a na?f; I understand that we live in a different world than we used to. I can see the merits of social media for writers. I love that the blogger on She Writes is hungry?good for her. I always want to?work hard, even when it feels difficult. At different times in my life, I’ve embraced those tools and that ethos and excelled. I’ve been hungry. But right now, I’m craving?a much more innocent, and unplugged, space. I’m wanting to feel more like I did on the weekend I moved into my new writing studio, when I put my iPod on shuffle, sang along to every song, and slowly and happily applied a new coat of paint to the walls, thinking, I’ll finish this when I’ll finish it. I’ll hang pictures when I want to. And then I’ll sit at that desk and remember what it is when words are good and hard and raw and beautiful.
I’m a lucky woman; I have created the kind of life where I get to spend hours, sometimes, alone in a room creating. (To some of you, that may sound like hell, I realize.) But with that kind of life comes a lot of pressure and many voices, not all welcome. And here, today, on this blog, I’m calling it: I refuse to make my writing?about the rat race we Americans make everything about.?I don’t, ever, want to conflate producing and publishing and platforming with the much more fulfilling work of WRITING.
Which, sometimes, requires a break.
It’s lovely to get this off my chest. Thanks to Jesse Taggert for the encouragement. What’s YOUR experience with the rat race, writing or otherwise?
In fact, one of the greatest challenges of living in a place like the San Francisco Bay Area for me is that, though the weather is quite frequently amazing here, we don’t really, truly, get a summer that’s hot, hot, hot?and I miss it. But somehow, this past week, we’ve had something pretty close. It’s been unseasonably warm and dry (well, duh?it’s always dry) and the fog belt has been belted in, like so many unsuspecting children in the back seat of the car on a summer road trip (uh….). The garden is bursting at the seams. L is doing a fun summer camp and we’ve been biking there in our shorts. Then he has swimming class in a town beyond any mention of fog so I sit on the sidelines baking. Online classes make?my time a little more my own, too. I went to yoga the other day for the first time in months.
And I do not. Feel. Like. Doing. Any. Work.
Suffice it to say that my huge enthusiasm for my new writing studio has waned some, simply because, while I love being in here, it also feels like an imperative to get off my butt and actually produce some writing. I’d love to! I really would! But man, it feels challenging.
This is not just because summer is so very, very tempting. It’s also because B and I are making some Big Life Decisions that are occupying a lot of brain space. And along with that, I’m in that very weird, somewhat-exciting, somewhat-terrifying place of starting a new project. A novel. It’s the same novel I started months ago, during NaNoWriMo, which I promptly relegated to the back burner once the book proposal and revisions entered in. But now that all of that is done, I have no excuse but to write the damn thing.
When I was a kid, my mom used to remind me, every time I started something new, that change was hard for me. Man, that was an understatement! The first day of?Kindergarten wasn’t pretty. Starting high school sent me into a ten-day long depression that I still shudder to remember. Going away to?college was awful.?I’m not at all good with transitions. And so here I am, with one project to bed, sort of, and another on my desk. I know what needs to happen in the book, mostly. I have the premise all tied up. But I have a major problem to solve?I’m trying to write a character who’s a stand-up comedian, and frankly, I’m not that funny (actually, I’m hysterically funny, but only in person, and only to a small handful of other human beings). This?is making me completely overwhelmed. In my more productive moments this week I’ve Googled “how to write humor” and done a few exercises that have been marginally entertaining. Then I kind of stare at the paper and freak out. I think what I really need to do is just jump in with both feet, get messy, and attempt to be funny along the way.
But I’d much rather be sitting in the sunshine with a good book and completely avoid it, because it feels really hard.?
So, as I said,?I went to yoga the other day. During class, I had a bit of a facile realization but one that’s nonetheless reminding me something about the artistic process. The class was an hour long, and about halfway through, I got to that point that every yogi gets to in a yoga class: the moment when you really and truly hate it and wish you could go home. Your body hurts, you’re sick of mindfully breathing, the teacher is so annoying, and your thoughts have taken over and are running you ragged. Then, five minutes later, you calm down and remind yourself that the only way to get to the other side is to breathe and press on. Next thing you know, you’re done.
This is kind of like writing a book, I thought to myself. Not very much like writing a book, but enough like writing a book that I should remember it.
Here I go: breathing, pressing on, and attempting to wow you with my comedic prowess. Wish me luck.