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!

Moving up

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So this is happening again. Or rather, at this point, it has mostly already happened. We have moved from the second floor of our building to the fourth floor—perhaps the easiest move we will ever make, but still our fifth move in 10 years, which is exhausting when you own this many books.

We were snug as a bug in our place and ready to sign another two-year lease when our landlord decided that she wanted to try and sell our apartment. She wasn’t sure she would sell, but she wanted to “test the market” and see if she could get a worthwhile price. Meanwhile, our friends Loes and Eli up on the fourth floor were planning a move to her home country of Holland, and they pitched us the idea of renting their apartment, which Eli’s parents own. Remember our “vacation” to the roof last year? That’s Loes and Eli’s place. Long story short, Eli’s parents kindly worked with us on a price we could afford, and now I can see the Empire State Building from my desk. I’m looking at it right now.

I’ve always said I am a lucky person. I feel lucky every day I’m in New York City. It isn’t just the big New York things, like access to museums or great food, it is the little things, like the man who held out his open bag of Lays, his eyebrows raised in offering, as I passed him on the street, or the patchwork of hopscotch squares that cover the sidewalks on a nice day. I didn’t accept a chip, but I still felt lucky. And now this. To have more space and a deck where we can watch ships move through the harbor every day and the skyline light up every night … it is so much.

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Moving has a way of stirring up feelings, of making you weigh what matters and question all your routines. In the weeks leading up to this move, I found it wasn’t the roof deck I was anticipating the most, it was the fact that in our new place, I wouldn’t have to put my bed in the corner anymore. I wouldn’t have to climb out the end of the bed every night if I got up to pee, and I wouldn’t have to tug the bed away from the wall and climb behind it every morning to straighten the sheets, which I have done every. single. morning. for three years. Our new bedroom is actually smaller, but because we weren’t going to put my desk in the same room (another bonus), we would have room to place the bed in a different spot. More and more I realize it isn’t the big things—the vacations and holidays of life, or even the roof decks—that matter when it comes to being happy. They help, but they aren’t it. Now that we’ve been here almost a week, the bedroom is our favorite room, in part because it is the most “done” and in part because we are loving the bed and night stands we inherited from Loes and Eli and the bold, green paint we added. And every time I make the bed, I feel lucky.

On discovering America

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I think there’s a deeper lesson to be learned from this article about why the Japanese – an advanced, seafaring nation – didn’t discover America. First, let me summarize the key points: The Japanese had everything they wanted, right there on their little archipelago, and what they didn’t have they could obtain from China or Korea, so there was no need to hit the high seas. And what were the Europeans doing when they “discovered” America? Searching for a shortcut to Asia so they could bring back spices. Asia was it, the place to be in the world of commerce.

I can’t help but picture a 15th-century Japanese man swinging his fist and saying, “aw shucks!” because let’s face it, America turned out to be a pretty big win.

And I also can’t help but think that on a much, much smaller scale, this little drama plays out over and over again in each of our lives. When we are  comfortable—when we have all the saffron a decent person needs—we stay home. Worlds go uncharted, seas go un-sailed. Make no mistake: There is something to be said for staying put, for raking zen gardens and tending our hearts like perfect bonsai trees, but to do so requires intention. I hope that I can learn to relish days that taste a little dull because they will send me in search of better salt.

Just my luck

photo 2Last night I watched the sun set for the first time in 2014 as my plane made its final approach to LaGuardia. We landed, I got my bag and headed to the taxi line, where I found, mercifully, far more cars than people and no wait whatsoever. The driver even seemed to understand where I wanted to go and how to get there.

Then, in the airport exit lane, the car stalled. The driver immediately restarted the engine, and soon we were pulling onto the highway, but it was clear that all was not well under the hood. There was a gentle rocking sensation, like riding with a grandmother who keeps her food hovering against the brake pedal, and I started to picture myself stranded on the side of the BQE, so cold without my hat and mittens that even the glittering skyline across the East River would offer no comfort.

“Just my luck,” I imagined myself saying while recounting what was  about to become a harrowing travel ordeal. Then I gave myself a mental slap in the face. I hate the phrase “just my luck.” I think it is stupid, illogical, inaccurate and, most of all, unhealthy. The thing is, we never say “just my luck” when things go well. When my plane landed safely and ahead of schedule, I didn’t say, “just my luck.” When my bag arrived quickly and undamaged, I didn’t say, “just my luck.” When there was no line for a taxi, I didn’t say, “just my luck.”

I have long referred to my outlook on life as logical optimism. I believe that, most of the time, it is only logical to believe that things are good and disasters will be avoided. Jeff is often annoyed by my Spock-meets-Pollyana worldview. When Jeff tells the story of the three wrecks he had in his Ford Ranger, it is the tale a little truck that was plagued by misfortune. The first time he told me the story I said, “You are so lucky – I can’t believe you had three  wrecks and emerged without a scratch!” Even the truck was okay, although Jeff did spend all of his savings on repairs.

I have long believed that the stories we tell about our own lives, in our heads and to other people, shape not just the perception but the actual direction of our days. According to this story from NPR, there is research to back me up. The general gist of it is that when we tell ourselves that our sorrows and misfortunes are overwhelming or unique to our individual experience (“I’m never going to make friends” or “I’m the only person here without friends”) we have a hard time overcoming them, but when we reframe the narrative (“Everyone has trouble making friends at first”) we not only feel better in the short term, we also achieve more and see concrete returns. But really, you should listen to the story – it involves the phrase, “I pooped on Frankenstein.”

Telling stories is a defining part of the human experience. How often have you started crafting a story (or Facebook status) before an event took place? Our desire to have something to tell can lead to a lot of whining. On-time arrivals, wine bottles that don’t break in transit and cab rides that are short and fairly priced don’t make good stories because they are such common occurrences. Most of the time, things do work out. But when disaster strikes, why do we frame ourselves as victims instead of heroes? I’m not a Greek scholar, but I don’t think, “just my luck” is how Odysseus described his 10-year journey home from Troy.

I contemplated all of this during what turned out to be a short and uneventful ride home, and when the car finally lurched up to the curb outside my apartment , I said to myself, “just my luck.”

The Statue of Liberty and me

LibertyDSC_0071Five things about the Statue of Liberty:

1) Last week was her birthday.

2) We have a clear view of her from our block, so I see her every time I leave my home. I can also see her if I lean waaay out my bedroom window.

3) She is standing on top of a fort, Fort Wood to be exact, which was built about 80 years before she was.

4) The more I read about American history, the more I realize that even if we get it wrong more days than we get it right, it was a revolutionary idea to  welcome all comers, to say, “this is a place of refuge.”

5) On the day I took this photo from my neighbor’s roof, I spent a lot of time watching Lady Liberty out in the harbor, watching boats move past her and darkness fall around her. I thought about her being there through the hurricane and  when the harbor is caked with ice. For some reason, I started to picture her stillness on nights when I couldn’t sleep. I imagine that I’m her. The idea takes my breath away— the cold wind, the vast city, the darkness. But she is steadfast, and in my mind, I become steadfast, too. Then I fall asleep.

Kamala’s tomato soup

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Recipesdsc_0281Recipesdsc_0287I can’t remember how I first met Kamala Gamble, but the second time I met her we were on a panel together, discussing King Corn*, an event I have since recognized as the moment my career began to shift toward sustainable agriculture. Kamala is a chef, urban farmer and outspoken advocate for local and sustainable food issues in Oklahoma City and beyond. For a year or two, she was also the recipe columnist for the magazine I edited, Oklahoma Living.

The arrangement was wonderful: Once a month, usually at the last minute when I was already a bit frazzled by the impending doom of my deadline, I would drive over to Kamala’s house/farm to pick up the month’s recipes and photograph them. For an hour or so in the middle of my workday, I strolled through her rows of okra, lingered in her expansive kitchen and ate whatever she fed me.

We also talked. And this is the single best thing about Kamala: She listens. She moves like a whirlwind, but if, on a random Tuesday,  you mention to her that you would like to one day live in the U.K. again, she will remember, and she will ask you two years later how that dream is coming along. And when she introduces you to someone, she will pull the high points of your life story out of her pocket and present you with more generosity of sprit than anyone I know.

As if that wasn’t enough, I freaking love her zucchini fritters and tomato soup, and I have made them over and over, although never as good as hers. The soup would be a perfect use for any end-of-the-season tomatoes you are lucky enough to have on hand. I already typed the recipes up once five years ago, and I’m too lazy to do it again, so if you want them, just download this PDF from Oklahoma Living‘s September 2008 issue.

* When I moved to Brooklyn, I discovered that one of the filmmakers behind King Corn, Ian Cheney, lived in my neighborhood! I saw the original Truck Farm parked just a few blocks from my apartment. And through my job I now work a lot with FoodCorps and have met Curt Ellis several times. This life is a circular thing, friends, and very big in its smallness.