There is no “later”

IMG_5380More than six months have passed since my last post, when I was feeling stuck in a rut and short on viable options. It wasn’t just me—Jeff and I were both asking ourselves and each other hard questions about where we wanted to live and what we wanted to do with our lives. We felt like we were running out of time to accomplish all of the things we want.  At that point, we had been in New York City for more than three years, and while that in itself seemed like a monumental accomplishment (moving more than 1,500 miles from the only place we had ever really lived, making new friends, finding new work), it was starting to feel like the only thing we had accomplished in a long time.

Our creative pursuits had floundered, and I, at least, was doubting if my pursuits were even worth perusing. Everything seemed a little exhausting. My job was exhausting, every new job I considered sounded exhausting. Writing—supposedly what I really wanted to do—sounded exhausting. Even the world of food and agriculture, an arena of advocacy that had consumed my professional and volunteer time for a decade, was starting to bore me.

Since then, a few things have happened. First of all, it stopped being winter. That helped. But long before the snow  melted for the last time in late March, I had made a few improvements to my mood. First of all, I managed to take two whole weeks off for Christmas. Then, I found an entirely new job. And before starting my new job, I dropped everything and went to England for a couple weeks, just to clear my head among Peter’s daffodils. More on all of those things later.

What I really want to talk about now is my inbox. The first time I heard someone refer to the psychic weight of his digital files, I felt sorry for him. What a sad thing to say, what a first-world problem. But slowly I  realized there were all sorts of things in my life that felt heavy. The sweater in my closet that I kept because it was a gift, even though it didn’t fit well, felt heavy. The tent Jeff bought me for my 22nd birthday that we have never used, felt heavy. And my inbox felt heavy.

I know many people who use their inbox as their sole email storage system: Things get tagged and shifted, but nothing ever really leaves, and it balloons to 1,100 messages, maybe 11,000. That’s not my issue. I’m a firm believer that an inbox should be for incoming things and action items, and I try very hard to keep mine to one page, aka 50 conversations. Note that I said I try. But even when I’m successful, at every job I’ve ever had and even in my personal life there are always messages that sit in the bottom of my inbox like stones, sometimes for years. At first, they are reminders of things I need to do—not now, but soon—but after a few weeks (or months or even years) they become reminders of my failure. They are usually small things—articles I once intended to read, files I need to file, graphics that need one word edited.

Every now and then I do a big clean and shave my inbox down to just 20, maybe even 15, messages. I toss the old stones at the bottom. But when I was getting ready to leave my last job, I realized that there was no reason to leave anything in my inbox at all. If my coworkers needed to reference something later, they would be better served if I filed everything in folders or dealt with it myself before leaving. And as for dealing with things myself, well, this was my last chance. I only had a matter of days left to do everything I would ever do with that inbox and all of the requests, reminders and ideas inside of it. And that’s when I had one of the most empowering realizations of my life: There is no later.

Without “later” there was only “now,” only what I could do and what I couldn’t. I realized that “later,’ while giving the appearance of lightening my load, was actually like carrying around a giant backpack that I tossed way too many things into.

Despite how obvious this idea was, I had a hard time getting my body to obey. It was almost as if muscle memory was kicking in, telling me to procrastinate just a little bit more, to come back to an email when I was less tired/less bored/less distracted/had more time. But there was no more time. And for a person who is obsessed with options, having none was actually liberating. Many of the messages turned out to be small things, even things I could delete without any action. A few triggered regret or required acceptance. Over and over I told myself, “there is no later, there is no later.”

By my last day, I had done it—I made it to inbox zero. “There is no later” was a tiny mantra for my digital liberation, and it began to seep over into the rest of my life. In a way, time was my  problem all along. For so many years there was so much time: time to build a career, to write a novel, to have a family, to make friends, to settle in, to up-root, to buy, to sell, to move abroad, to move home. I’ve done a lot of things I’m very proud of, but somehow the things that are closest to my heart are always shifted into the “later” category, and over the past year or two they have sat on my heart like stones. So heavy.

I’m afraid, even as I write this, that I won’t succeed in lifting them, that change and rest and summer have buoyed me, but that over time I will grow complacent. “Later” will creep in, and I will lose faith in myself again. At least I’ve gotten to the bottom of the problem, I’ve turned the stones over in my hands. I know their shape, and I know their weight. At least for now, there is no later.

Into the fire

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Last night over Indian food, I was telling my friend Anna about everything going on in my life and Jeff’s life, and I used the phrase, “out of the frying pan and into the fire” to describe why I feel cautious about analyzing all of life’s options and vetting them on a sort of Scoville scale lest I get burned.

Anna didn’t know what I meant. Jeff theorized later that maybe this is a Southern phrase, a theory that seems reasonable given the frying pan. But regardless of where it came from, I’ve heard myself say it over and over again lately, almost like a manta against rash thinking. Out of the frying pan and into the fire−it creeps into every “catching up” chat I have over coffee or cocktails in the same way the recently bereaved must find themselves saying “one foot in front of the other” or “we’re getting by.” So I explained myself to Anna: this fear of moving from peril to peril, blind to danger because of the impulse for escape.

“But you would just caramelize so beautifully and so fast,” Anna said.

And there it was. She hadn’t missed a beat, and the immediacy of her reply gave it weight in my heart: It was all so simple. So there’s fire−so what? I jump again, I caramelize, I transform into the best possible version of myself. That’s not an easy thing, but it is another possible outcome, an alternative that gives me power over my own narrative again.

Earlier this week, I saved the following quote:
Our finest moments are most likely to occur when we are feeling deeply uncomfortable, unhappy or unfulfilled. For it is only in such moments, propelled by our discomfort, that we are likely to step out of our ruts and start searching for different ways or truer answers. − M. Scott Peck, American psychiatrist

I’ve always believed in the truth of this idea−I’ve even written about it before−but clearly I needed to hear it again, in food terms I could understand.

Happy caramelizing, friends!

Street Finds: What tree?

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20th and 7th Ave., Brooklyn. 

 

There is just so much:

1) What tree? Was there once a tree or seed taped here? Does its absence mean that someone is, right now, trying to grow a giant sequoia in their Brooklyn apartment?

2) A giant sequoia?!

3) “Grow This Tree Alive!”

4) No instruction manuals, only a reminder that the internet exists.

5) I want that pigeon sticker.

 

In other news, last week I watched a tiny girl and her father tape a folded piece of paper to the side of my building that said “Noah” in crayon. There appeared to be writing on the inside on the folded page, but I resisted the urge to look. It was there for several days before it blew away. This world is full of mysteries.

Ellie on things: Her own bed

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Ellie’s birthday was a bit of a bummer this year. I planned on taking her to the park first thing in the morning, but it was raining and it kept raining all day. Rain is Ellie’s Kryptonite. I was also super busy at work, so I didn’t have time to create her annual birthday post, which is always an ode to her great talent for comfort. (See here and here.)

This year I thought I would feature photos of Ellie in her dog bed. Here’s the sad thing: Until about 18 months ago, Ellie didn’t have her own dog bed at all. My reasoning for this, which I still stand by, was that Ellie is allowed on ALL of the furniture and makes liberal use of it, as evidenced by the previous birthday posts. I didn’t see the need for her to have access to more furniture than we did or to have another thing taking up floor space. However it has been apparent for several years that she is a big fan of the cheap little dog bed we keep in her crate (the striped one above), which we actually bought for a foster dog years ago. So I finally broke down and bought her a bed of her own, then a second one to keep upstairs where I work. She loves them. She loves them so much that I feel like a jerk. Then I feel stupid for feeling like a jerk.

By the way, I’m pretty sure that in that last photo she’s watching for Jeff to come home. She’s a pretty good time keeper.

 

My best meal in France

Hailey and I had a simple goal for our 48 hours in Paris: Walk around and eat stuff. To some extent, that’s exactly what we did (we certainly walked around), but we ran into a few challenges when it came to eating stuff. 1) We had limited time, so we felt like we had to make every bite count, which led to paralyzing indecision. 2) We went without a plan for any specific meals or restaurants. 3) More money would have helped. 4) Restaurants and shops closed much earlier than we were expecting, especially in quiet Montmartre where our Air B&B apartment was.

But we did have good food. Here’s the story of our best meal in Paris.

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IMG_36571) First, we drank wine. About an hour earlier, after spending  eight hours walking all over the city, we completely ran out of steam in the tunnel under the Arc De Triomphe. Cold and tired, we stayed there, under one of the most famous monuments in the world, for a loooong time.  A long time, friends. We didn’t know where to go next, and, more to the point, we didn’t know where to eat. We decided to go back to Montmartre to retrieve warmer clothing and, hopefully, find something like a pastry shop where we could buy fabulous, wonderful things to take back to our apartment. On our way home, we bought wine. And we drank some. I think this informs what comes next.

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2) I love foreign grocery stores. I like seeing the eggs and milk on the dry goods shelf and the yogurt in glass cups.* Sure, I love seeing farmers’ markets and anywhere people buy food, but I have a special love for grocery stores. I like to see where people shop when it is late and they are out of other options, which is exactly the situation we found ourselves in. For about two seconds, I was sad that one of my three dinners in France would be from the equivalent of a bodega, then I got really excited. When I made it to the canned goods aisle and saw they had cassoulet with confit de canard (duck! confit! cassoulet! FANCY!), I could hardly contain myself.

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3) This was our haul: ratatouille provencale, cassoulet de castelnaudary au confit de canard du sud-ouest, bread, wine and strawberries. And yogurt, bananas and hazelnut cream for the next morning. This is the most proud I’ve ever been of canned goods I didn’t can myself. THEN, I opened the cassoulet and saw the duck legs were still on the bone. They canned the bones, ya’ll! But I guess you can do anything in France. Or with access to a pressure cooker. Best of all, it smelled good. Any doubts I had disappeared, and I went to take a quick shower while Hailey heated everything on the tiny stovetop.

4) From the moment we got to the apartment, I realized that the tiny shower had a little window that overlooked the kitchen, presumably so the otherwise interior space could enjoy a little light. Somehow, Hailey had NOT noticed the window. So when, a few minutes into my shower, I opened the window to chat with her while she was cooking, she completely LOST it. When she handed me the pan of duck legs and beans to demonstrate that one could conceivably cook while showering, well, neither of us could contain ourselves. I think it’s the hardest I’ve laughed all year. In other circumstances, it might have been a “laughed so hard we peed our pants” moment, but I, at least, wasn’t wearing any pants.

IMG_1916IMG_19185) Then we ate. And it was good—very good.

 

I’ve been thinking about this since March and pondering a few things:

1) Do normal French people ever eat canned cassoulet and ratatouille? If so, who and when? Under what circumstance?

2) This is why I love Air B&B. We would never have had this experience in a hotel because 1) we probably wouldn’t have been in a regular neighborhood with grocery stores for regular people; 2) we wouldn’t have had anywhere to cook food; 3) hotels don’t have windows in their showers.

3) As with my other most memorable meals (the naked spaghetti incident at my grandmother’s house; my first sangria experience in Spain; etc.), the quality of the food was inconsequential, almost an afterthought.  I attended a panel discussion a couple years ago at the International Culinary Center in which a researcher explained that, despite having consumed plenty of food, a French person might say, “I haven’t eaten all day” if the food she ate wasn’t shared with others, at a table, most likely with wine. It is by that standard that I deem this meal the best of the trip, by far.

 

* Don’t let me or anyone else tell you that the French have everything figured out. See that dairy shelf? That’s some kind of KitKat pudding cup there on the far left. They aren’t so perfect, those French. Or maybe they are—I like KitKats.