Lindsay Crandall

Lindsay Crandall spends her days writing, teaching, photographing, and (mostly) chasing after her toddler daughter Lily. She lives with Lily and her husband Adam in the Deep South, though they secretly hope to return to their northern roots one day. Lindsay blogs at A Condition of the Heart and frequently posts her photographs on Flickr.

Banana Split Cake: All-American Dessert

This article originally appeared in The Curator July 24, 2009.

My cooking skills are laughable – or they were, until a few months ago. No one ever taught me to cook, so my abilities never stretched beyond making macaroni topped with shredded cheese or popping a frozen pizza in the oven and pairing it with a sliced cucumber. It’s embarrassing to admit. My husband jokes that when he married me I could burn water. And it was more or less true.

After thumbing through Alice Waters’s The Art of Simple Food, devouring Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, and recently reading Molly Wizenberg’s A Homemade Life, I made the conscious decision to take my culinary destiny into my own hands. A life lived well cannot be sustained exclusively on food that originates in a box. With the help of my husband, who cooks intuitively and has been designated cook at the fire station where he works, I have taken to slow roasting vegetables, building homemade pizzas, and experimenting with soups. I may still fumble around the kitchen, but I can follow a recipe (most of the time).

Though I’m not much of a cook, I’ve always loved baking. My early repertoire included boxed brownies and cookies from a tube – though, again embarrassingly, I did forget to add egg to a batch of brownies I made for my husband early in our marriage, and they were just plain disgusting. In recent years, I’ve taken on breads, cookies, cereals, and cakes, all from scratch and all delicious. Somehow, whipping together baked goods comes more easily to me – perhaps because, to me, baking equals love. Taking the time to piece together a dessert, in particular, is akin to lavishing my own “sugar” on others.

But now it’s summer in Alabama, and baking when the it’s nearing 100 degrees outside is absurd. That’s why the perfect summer confection should never go near the oven. My perfect summer dessert is banana split cake – a no bake, layered dessert that shouts to be eaten outdoors at a picnic in July. It evokes memories of the Fourth of July, swimming and running around before recharging with a sugary slice.

Now, I want to get one thing straight – this isn’t an organic whole food dessert. It is heartily all-American: buttery, sugary, and layered with fruits shipped from tropical locations or packed into a can or jar. Surely, Alice Waters would slap me on the wrist for suggesting it to you. The recipe was passed to my mother from an older neighbor when I was a baby, so we’re not exactly sure where it originated. All I know is, when I fed it to my husband, he oohed and mmmed all the way through it.

Banana Split Cake

3 1/2 sticks of butter (do not substitute)
3 cups of graham cracker crumbs
2 cups of confectioners’ sugar
2 eggs
4 bananas
20 oz. can of crushed pineapple
Chopped walnuts
Maraschino cherries
Large tub of whipped topping

Melt 1 1/2 sticks of butter in a small sauce pan. Mix in graham cracker crumbs. Be sure to mix thoroughly or your crust won’t lift out of the pan with rest of your slice (this happened to me). Press into a 9 inch by 13 inch pan and put into the freezer to harden.

In a large bowl, mix the confectioner’s sugar, eggs, and 2 sticks of softened butter. Beat on high speed with a hand mixer for about 10 minutes, until the mixture becomes a thick, creamy custard.

Pull the pan out of the freezer. Layer the custard mixture before adding a layer of sliced bananas, each about a half inch thick. It helps to slice the bananas as you add them, rather than slice all four bananas beforehand. Drain the can of crushed pineapple, and spread on top of the bananas. Next, layer the whipped topping and top it with as many walnuts and cherries as you want. Chill for 1-2 hours before serving.

Voila! A dessert perfect in the sweltering summer. As much as I try to make my foods from scratch and buy local, fresh ingredients, I can’t imagining tinkering with this recipe. But I’m sure with a little creative forethought, several of the ingredients could be substituted to suit your fancy, or the recipe could be tweaked to include fewer processed ingredients. To me, it’s perfect as is.

I will offer one tiny serving suggestion: Enjoy it with someone you love! All those oohs and mmms make sharing this cake all the better.

A Love Letter for the Season

This article originally appeared in The Curator November 20, 2009.

Dear Autumn,

You are the sexiest of all the seasons. When you come around, I drop everything and give myself to you wholly. I will be your mistress, and I will love you even on the darkest and greyest of days. I will lay in the grass and stare up at the nakedest of trees, thinking only of you.

I will never call you fall, only autumn. Fall is so pedestrian, and the way I feel about you is deep and serious and sophisticated. You are the season in which I was born, and I am saturated by you.

It’s my understanding that many people love summer, and prefer it to you. What are they thinking? No afternoon in the hot sun on the beach or beside the pool compares to a hike in an autumn wood or curling up under a fleece blanket beside a crackling fireplace. Who needs the bright colors of summer when they can have the curl of yellow, fiery red, or savory, scrumptious orange? I’d even take your crunchy browns over that summer gleam. I need to tell you that summer doesn’t hold a candle to you, especially for a northern girl who, like me, finds herself living south of the Mason-Dixon line. Spending the summer running from one air conditioned space to another is not my idea of a good time. I loathe air conditioning, and loathe summer all the more for making it necessary. Summer is the most painful of seasons.

Photo: Shari Altman

Photo: Shari Altman

So, every year I wait for you. Beginning in September, when I’ve had all I can take of humid, sweaty, melty days, I check the weather report religiously, waiting for your arrival. I trust that you will rescue me, and every year, without fail, you do. It’s always later than I would hope, usually mid-October, a good month or so after the calendar touts your arrival and long after you’ve swept through my old stomping grounds.

My family calls to tell me that it’s forty degrees when I’m still melting in eighty degree heat. Forty degrees may be cold, but I get jealous. I long for you. I want more than anything to pull down my box of sweaters and wear them all in your name. I want to walk outside and feel my cheeks flush at a passing breeze. I want you with me forever.

Though I am grateful to have you, I know that for now I don’t have you fully. Not here, where I currently call home. Where I live is subtropical, and you don’t venture that far south. Instead you blow kisses in my direction, enough to drop the temperatures a bit, but you prefer the north. You change the colors of their leaves, keep them swaddled in wool scarves and turtlenecks, and encourage the ample stocking of firewood. I don’t begrudge you this. After all, I decided to move away. What I didn’t realize is that I was leaving you. I took you for granted for so many years, and now that I yearn for you and want you back, I can’t have you. And you know it.

Photo: Shari Altman

This morning, I went for a walk looking for evidence of you. The sky was grey, swelling with the onset of a storm. The wind gusted and whipped my hair across my face. I saw block after block of green leaves on trees that refuse to admit that summer is over and it’s time to let go.

But then I turned a corner and saw it – just a glimpse. A swirl of brown leaves on the sidewalk peppered with tiny red rebellious leaves, ones that have embraced you, ones that I love. I thought about chasing after them and catching as many little red leaves as I could, but I didn’t want to go overboard. Lord knows who would’ve seen me on the side of the road stuffing leaves into my shirt like a crazed game show contestant or a scarecrow.

I’m not quite that crazy. Instead, my mother-in-law has promised to wax leaves from the north and send them to me soon. Autumn, it’s not soon enough – I want them now.

2910130757_c526336a7f_b
Photo: Shari Altman

You are so much more than cool temperatures and changing leaves. You are a season, a time frame. You are September, October, and November. You are the beginning of the school year and the ushering in of the holidays. You are apples and pumpkins, hayrides, and corn mazes. You are my reason to wear corduroy.

This is a love that will surely endure the test of time.

When my husband and I gear up for baseball playoffs and football Sundays, I know you are close. He spends hours in the kitchen making chili and I make apple crisp and pumpkin bread. It’s all we eat for weeks at a time. We drink pumpkin spice coffee in the mornings and pumpkin ale at night. We savor you.

Autumn, without you, my life would be incomplete. You are the scarf around my neck, the cool air tickling my nose. I love you unapologetically, forever and ever.

 

Why I Shoot Film

For too long in the early days of our marriage, my husband and I were without a camera. We have no photographs of our long drive from New York State to the Deep South a few days after our wedding; none from our honeymoon to Portland, Oregon. I sold my 35mm SLR, a Pentax ZX-M, to my father before our wedding for two hundred bucks. As far as I know he never used it. I had never used it much either.

I bought the camera in the autumn of my junior year of college. I had enrolled in a photography class, partly because I wanted to give it a try and partly because I was toying with the idea of taking on studio art as a minor. This was before the rash of digital photography, when digital cameras were still bulky and could hold a floppy disk. My photography class was all 35mm. What I remember from that class is vague: always scratching the negatives when I developed them, spending hours in the dark room, self-portraits of my feet and shots of an ex-boyfriend. I don’t remember learning technique or how to see creatively. I shot photos for one semester, and only shot one more roll the following summer before putting my camera away.

A year ago I asked my father if I could have the camera back. It wasn’t until this summer that it finally made its way to me with one roll of expired film. My husband, daughter, and I were in upstate New York for an extended vacation to see family, and I shot through the roll in three days. After each photograph I pulled the camera away from me to see what it looked like, a habit I’ve acquired with my DSLR, only to be reminded that this type of photography was not immediate. I had to wait. I had to take my time, adjust the camera and the focus carefully, and wait until the entire roll was exposed to take it to be developed.

I can’t say exactly what made me want to shoot film again, except that I knew I wanted to be a better photographer. In the duration of my marriage I had accumulated a hand-me-down point-and-shoot and eventually upgraded to a DSLR. I had committed to completing the 365 project and was shooting photos every day. Eventually I got brave enough to put my DSLR in manual mode and learned how to compose a creative photograph, mostly by trial and error. My photos were improving merely by the daily habit, but I still hungered to get better. Shooting digital had given me the skills and the passion, but I wanted to shoot film because I knew I couldn’t cheat. Instead of the limitless frames I could shoot with my digital camera, I would have to carefully consider each shot with my film camera.

I thought I knew what I was in for when I started shooting film, but I had no idea. Every roll I shoot fills me with excitement, anticipation, and often a bit of doubt. It’s an exercise in patience but also in self-kindness, since I tend to be perfectionist and set unreasonably high standards for myself. Photography helps me to capture that sense of wonder and experimentation that small children find commonplace. They try new things just to see what will happen; I do the same with my camera. What would happen if I point my camera at the sun? What would this brilliant red look like? Or blue, or green? What if I focus on the background when my inclination is to focus on the foreground?

Of course, these are questions I ask myself when shooting my digital camera, too, though the sense of play is different for one critical reason: delayed gratification. When I shoot my digital camera, I end up taking the same shot twenty times or more, making small adjustments with each frame. Often the best shot is the first, but because I have the opportunity for a do-over, I take it. Film gives me a chance to play with the knowledge that each photo is a risk and all I can do is trust what I know and go for it. Sometimes it can feel like a guessing game, but because I can’t see the photo the camera just produced, I have make a decision and trust it was the right one. Sometimes it is; sometimes it isn’t. That shooting film enhances my sense of play enables me to find joy even in my mistakes, even in the questions that arise to which I have no answer, even in an entire roll that may have to be tossed away.

What I love most about film is how gritty it is. The prints can sometimes be a bit grainy—especially if, like me, you don’t have a lot of money to spend on fancy, good-quality film—or they can be soft like a watercolor painting. Colors are vibrant and sometimes unexpectedly so. In an age where we can not only take digital photos but can then manipulate them with photo editing software, film is pure and raw. A film print simply is what it is.

Marilyn Chandler McIntyre, in her book Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies, writes, “Beauty and peace are things to be learned and protected, because we see all too much evidence around us that they can be lost.” Photography, in whatever capacity, is a way to preserve that beauty and peace in the moments of our lives. To pick up a camera and shoot a photograph is among the sacred tasks we can perform. For me film photography is the best way to delight in beauty and creation and experience moments of gratitude for this life. I will never stop shooting my digital camera, but I don’t expect to ever put down my film camera. Instead I expect to marvel at every newly developed roll of film, because this is the world as I see it.

 

This article originally appeared on the Art House America Blog. All photos are by Lindsay Crandall.

The Beautiful Beach: A Photo Essay

It is May 7, 2011 — a Saturday. We drive forty-five minutes south to Dauphin Island. This will be the last time we will visit the Gulf of Mexico before moving away.

It had been more than a year since the BP oil spill. Last summer we didn’t go to the beach at all. My husband Adam got a part-time job doing EMS standby for those working to clean up the shores. He said time and again that it wasn’t that bad where we lived in Alabama, but we were still grateful for the extra income.

In late October, we finally took our daughter Lily to the beach at Dauphin Island. It was off-season and barely a soul could be seen. Still, there were no tar balls and we had little concern. We played in the sand and swam. Adam tried to catch crabs with his bare hands. Mullet jumped nearby. Everything seemed all right.

I made a bucket list of things to do before we moved. On it was one last visit to our southern beach. We arrived early, long before the heat set in, and found a quiet place to build a sand castle and walk Lily along the water’s edge. We knew we wouldn’t see these waters for a long time; we probably won’t live so close to the water again. But the Gulf will always be there and the beaches are just as beautiful as they’ve ever been.

Note: these photos were taken with a Holga 120 camera.

Where It Will Start Again

Three days after our wedding, my husband Adam and I packed everything we owned into a U-Haul and drove south out of New York State. We had no plan, only a destination: the Gulf coast of Alabama. We left behind everything that was familiar and started a new life together in a new place. We planned to stay for two years. Now, nearly six years later—with no plan, only a destination—we’re moving back.

A few evenings ago I stood in the bathroom, brushing my teeth. Everyone already in bed tucked in for the night, I didn’t even bother to flip on the light. I just kept reciting to myself the beginning of Wendell Berry’s “How to Be a Poet”: Make a place to sit down./Sit down. Be quiet.

Quiet is an abundant and scary place. It has become scarier now that we’ve settled on a moving date, now that the “someday” of our move is very quickly becoming now. When it’s quiet, I start thinking about all the things left to do. Panic sets in. I start worrying about what Adam will do for employment, what city we’ll end up in, how we’ll stock up on blankets and winter coats. I go to the quiet in short bursts, until I can’t stand it anymore, and then I back away.

Because we knew our time in Alabama was temporary, Adam and I always treated it that way. We knew someday we would leave and it would be easier if we didn’t plant roots that would soon need digging up. On paper this makes sense, but it has left a gaping hole in our southern life. Now as we prepare to leave, I realize that we are actually leaving very little behind. Our relationships are proving to be flimsy and our entanglements easy to untie. Already people have let us go, and we haven’t left yet. But this is our doing, the harvest of a temporary life.

What surprises me most is how sad I’ve felt about moving. It occurred to me after a recent trip to New Orleans Zoo that I may never visit New Orleans again. I might never drive through Mississippi and see the “Welcome to Alabama the Beautiful” sign again. Adam and I made a bucket list of things to do before we move, and I’ve lamented over the things we didn’t do enough.

When we moved away from New York, we knew we’d be back to visit family and friends. But I’m not so sure about Alabama. I’m getting ready to leave and never come back.

In a few days, we will celebrate Lily’s second birthday. We have no plans for a party; the move is just too close. Instead we’ll celebrate like we did on the day of her birth—just the three of us. No visitors, no guests. Just us. When we get to New York, we’ll celebrate again, this time with family and friends who we’ve been far from for far too long.

In the meantime, we’ll keep crossing things off our to do list and enjoy these last days in our first home. This was our first big adventure together, and Alabama will always be special to us. But it’s time to start compiling a list of things to do when we get to New York: see a favorite band with a friend, go to a poetry reading, swim in Lake Ontario, take Adam to New York City for the first time. This time we’ll pack everything we own in a U-Haul, along with the dog, cat, and two year-old who have joined our family, and make the long drive north, back to where this all started and to where it will start again.

Thankful the Hops Were Freed

It is Sunday, late in the afternoon. Sunday is a day not only good for church or football; it is a day when draft beer is half off. My husband Adam and I drive downtown to a local pizza joint, not for pizza but for the beer. We slide our one-year-old daughter into a high chair and order: Bell’s Two Hearted Ale for Adam, Great Divide Fresh Hop for me. This particular restaurant has a selection of beer that beats any other local bar or eatery: some 35 beers on tap and almost three times as many bottled beers.

Photo by Lindsay Crandall.

This is all thanks to Free the Hops, a grassroots non-profit whose primary goal was to bring high quality craft beer to the state of Alabama. In May 2009, after years of lobbying, legislation was passed to raise the alcohol limit on beer in the state from 6 percent to 13.9 percent by volume. For beer lovers in Alabama, this was good news.

Adam and I always enjoyed our beer, but our exposure had been limited. Since the early days our marriage we have been partial to Yuengling. It was our standby beer, reasonably priced, and we seldom deviated from it. When we did it was for something like Blue Moon or Sam Adams.

For the nine months previous to the Free the Hops legislation we drank very little beer as we awaited the birth of our daughter, then drank barely any in the following six months. To say that we were out of the loop was an understatement, not just in the beer world but in general. Having a newborn will do that to you.

Just in time for us to get back to our regular drinking habits, a new pizza joint moved in downtown and with it came a rush of new-to-Alabama beers. We met friends there for pizza one evening and walked out quite fond of a few new brews: for Adam, St. Bernardus Abt 12 and for me, Magic Hat #9. Soon after we found of another pizza joint with a healthy sampling of beer around the corner from our new home (a dangerous thing to have nearby) and made it our mission to try any craft beers we could. The only problem? We couldn’t find most of them at the store. So we drank our trusty standard at home and often ventured out to one of these pizzerias for a brew. Even with a little person in tow, we became regulars.

Photo by Lindsay Crandall.

Adam started reading up on different types of beer, and in turn educated me on differing beer styles. When we went out, we didn’t just guzzle our drinks; we paid attention to their flavors and determined which we most enjoyed. Adam prefers beer rich in hops or dark and malty. I like hops, too, but also enjoy any beer made with wheat. Good things to know when making the great leap of faith that is trying a new beer.

Eventually local markets started carrying more craft beer and some offer a “create your own six pack” option or sample packs. When we’re feeling adventurous and have a few extra bucks in our pockets, we try something new in the comfort of our own home. Still we often find ourselves at the local watering hole on days when the pricey craft beers are half off. We sample new pints and revisit favorites. For us, this is part of the good life.

Adam’s Top 5 Beers

Sam Adams Winter Lager

Abita Andygator

Dogfish Head 90 Minute Ale

Sweetwater IPA

Bell’s Two Hearted Ale

Lindsay’s Top 5 Beers

Magic Hat #9

Hoegaarden

Great Divide Titan

Avery White Rascal

Lazy Magnolia Indian Summer

The Year of Journaling Fearlessly

The wall of notebooks was the sexiest place in the bookstore. I would stand before it, searching for just the right one that might be perfect for recording all of my brilliant thoughts. When I found the one—often the one was both beautiful and pricey—I would take it home, set it in a conspicuous place, and wait for inspiration to strike. I’d mean to write in it, and sometimes I would for a day or two before it would peter off like so many well-laid plans. Months later I would try again with another notebook, one that seduced me with its promise of a second chance, or a third or fourth. This happened a lot. Journal keeping never really stuck.

That is, until the beginning of 2010, the year of jounaling fearlessly.

Photo by Lindsay Crandall.

The trouble I always had with journaling arose from two things: perfectionism and navel gazing. My particular brand of perfectionism dictated that I always write in my best handwriting, in perfectly straight lines, and in perfectly correct English. Especially in a fancy notebook, the contents would have to match the container and the fear that I wasn’t good enough or smart enough or fancy enough always loomed over me. I had admired a roommate in college who unapologetically scribbled into her journal. I asked her if she ever felt like she had to get it right before she put the words on paper to which she said matter-of-factly, no. I was confounded.

Navel gazing, the other problem I had with journaling, had less to do with personal hang-ups than simply becoming bored with the daily goings-on that often seemed too tedious to warrant recording. Perhaps my future self would like to read about all the things I did (and to an extent I think this more and more true), but the process of getting these things down on the page seemed both self-important and dull.

Earlier this year, a friend had written on her blog about keeping a homemaking notebook, a place where she could collect quotes, daily activities, ideas, and to-do lists. It was mostly a commonplace book, not a place to record deep thoughts, not a place that would require a lock and key. In spite of being journaling averse, I was still attracted to keeping a journal, and I liked my friend’s low-key approach. Armed with a gift card from Christmas, I went to the bookstore. I bought a large hardbound sketchbook, light blue with birds perched on the front. I took it home, dated the first page, and wrote two quotes I had scribbled on scraps of paper from a book I had just finished reading. I drew a few flowers in the corner. I promised myself I would write again the next day. Then I did.

Photo by Lindsay Crandall.

This time was different from all my previous unsuccessful attempts. This time I allowed myself to be disorderly, to rebel against that terrible beast of perfectionism. And I allowed myself to not have to write about me. I purposely set out to only keep track of quotes I came across and lists of things to do. That didn’t last long. Five pages in I wrote a short paragraph trying to make sense of what was happening in my interior life. Several pages later I ended up pouring my heart out, not because I wanted to keep track of those thoughts in a diary I’d later look back on, but because as a writer the way for me to best process things is to write them down, especially when I feel clogged up with what I call mental clutter. Mostly I wrote out passages from books, drew sketches, and made lists of future projects.

This journaling became a daily habit and later in the year I started keeping another journal, one full of what Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way calls “morning pages.” Simply put, it was a daily three-page brain dump that I kept in a one subject spiral-bound notebook. This journal was, as poet Luci Shaw writes in her essay “The Writer’s Notebook,” a place where I could “[name] the confusion of the mind and heart . . . to make it seem more manageable.” Shaw goes on to say, “Though we are often moving too fast to notice it, there is in each of us a profound need to be still, to be alone, to reflect, to meditate, to contemplate, to wait, to reach a kind of bone-deep honesty with our own souls.” In the midst of keeping two journals I found that bone-deep honesty, not in recounting the moments of my days but by exploring the undercurrents in my daily living, the threads that tied the whole thing together.

I sat down recently and read through both journals. It was scary at first, until I started seeing patterns emerge: wanting to take my writing more seriously, wanting to live a creative life, wanting to find healing and restoration in some of the tender areas of my life. W.H. Auden famously asked, “How can I know what I think until I see what I say?” I have never found that to be truer than I do now. Keeping a journal has become invaluable to me because as Henri Nouwen writes in Reflections on a Theological Education:

“Writing is a process in which we discover what lives in us. The writing itself reveals what is alive. The deepest satisfaction of writing is precisely that it opens up new spaces within us of which we were not aware before we started to write. To write is to embark on a journey whose final destination we do not know.”

Sundays, Football and Chili

Being my favorite of all seasons, fall is synonymous with so many good things: apple cider, changing colors, pumpkins, and scarves. The downshift to cooler weather means we can once again enjoy a day outside without sticky clothes and sweat stains, a welcome change for those of us living in extremely warm climates. Best of all, the onset of fall brings with it a favorite ritual at my house, Football Sunday.

Photo by Lindsay Crandall. Chili by Adam Crandall.

Now I know football is about as middle America as it gets and that I’ve already lost some of you just by mentioning the f-word. Some of you feel about football in general the way I feel about the SEC – I just don’t give a flip and I wish it would go away. That’s okay. Football Sunday isn’t so much about the football as it is about togetherness. For me, Football Sunday is family time, a day we set aside to be together and somewhere in the background the television is tuned into the game. It was this way when I was a kid and now that I’m married with a kid of my own, it’s this way at my house.

Football Sunday: How to Do It

1. Five minutes before kickoff, crack open a good fall beer. Sam Adams Octoberfest or something similar will do just fine. (No need to get too fancy, but whatever you do, stay away from Miller Lite.)

2. Eat in front of the TV. A sandwich or a hearty bowl of chili (see below) will do just fine, though snacks are almost always necessary. Tortilla chips with cheese is a good choice. Feeling extravagant? Have a baguette with a good soft cheese. (Another reason to stay away from Miller Lite.)

3. Watch the game.

4. Or not. It is perfectly acceptable to read, knit, or nap as long as you are within earshot of the TV. It’s togetherness we’re after here.

5. If it’s cold enough, build a fire. But only if you have a functioning fireplace.

6. Keep drinking beer. No need to be excessive, but a cold beer in hand is a crucial component in the magic of Football Sunday.

Optional: Go to church in the morning, preferably as early as possible so as not to miss the lengthy pre-game show with Terry, Howie, Jimmy, and the rest of the gang.

Adam’s Awesome Chili

We make chili weekly during the cold months. It’s a simple recipe that makes enough for plenty of leftovers or can feed a crowd.

Ingredients

2 whole bell peppers

1-3 jalapeno peppers (depending on how hot you want it)

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 medium white onion

1 28 oz can crushed tomatoes

1 14 oz can each: refried beans, pinto beans, kidney beans, garbanzo beans, whole kernel corn and diced tomatoes

12 oz beer

2 tbsp. vegetable oil

2 tbsp. chili powder

1 tbsp. cumin

Optional: If you like your chili meaty, you can add 1 lb. of ground beef, pork, or the like.

1. Chop peppers, onion and garlic. Add to oil in large 5-quart pot and sauté for 5 minutes. If adding meat, do so now and sauté until meat is thoroughly cooked.

2. While vegetables sauté, open all canned food and drain.

3. Add crushed and diced tomatoes and refried beans. Stir until well-blended.

4. Add beans, corn, beer and spices. Reduce heat to low and cook for at least 30 minutes, preferably several hours.

5. Serve to your favorite football fanatics (and those who barely tolerate the sport) with shredded cheddar cheese, sour cream, and tortilla chips. Enjoy!

Interior Life: How I Maintain My Motorcycle

I first read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in my senior year of high school. I read it again in college with a group of friends, and again a few years later. I’ve read it over and over because I like the idea of the motorcycle as an extension of the self, that maintaining the motorcycle is a way to be fully present and being fully present is a way to feed one’s interior life.

The interior life is a fascinating thing. No one else can see it. No one knows what’s going on in there. But each of us carries our own private interior life around with us. We know it well, though others know of us only what we present.

As Jesus pointed out the seven woes of the Pharisees, he said, “First clean the inside of the cup, and then the outside also will be clean” (Matthew 23:26). Take care of your interior life. Clean it, care for it. Your exterior life will reflect it. Maintain your motorcycle and maintain yourself.

It seems pretty basic: slow down, pay attention, be present in each moment, live with intention. With cultural shifts toward intentional living, such as the slow food movement and the revitalization of homesteading, it seems as if the maintenance of the interior life should be easy, or at least easier.

But, of course, life gets busy and often chaotic. I have to remind myself to embrace the chaos. I try to pause and reflect, sometimes to no avail. Without a break, a Sabbath, or a moment to exhale, the chaos can easily leave the inside of my cup tarnished and maybe even a little cracked.

It’s a question of how we nurture ourselves.

I don’t mean to imply that the spiritual disciplines of prayer, meditation, and reading the Scriptures are not necessary to the maintenance of the interior life. Indeed, they are critical. But doing them doesn’t automatically mean that we won’t feel depleted or that we don’t need rest.

It also doesn’t mean that we make enough space in our lives to play and imagine and create. For me, that’s when the nurturing comes in. It may seem childish and silly, but finding ways to create and play always seems to replenish my interior life.

Recently, I started reading through Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. The book is a sort of creative self-therapy. Every day you hand-write three pages of whatever comes to mind. The writing is merely a brain dump — stream of consciousness, no filter — in order to clear your mind to allow your creativity to flow. In addition to these three pages, Cameron suggests you take yourself on an artist date once a week, a specific time when you go do something fun alone. It need not be artistic, per se — just an opportunity for your “artist child” to play. Each chapter has specific tasks to be completed throughout the week, in addition to the daily writing and artist dates, that serve to break down the things that can produce creative blocks.

One of the main principles is that creativity is a spiritual experience. When we create something, we join with God, the Great Creator.

Call it genius or creative energy or the Holy Spirit, the force that moves through us as we create moves because we are made in his image. We create because he made us creative. Whether we write, paint, swing a hammer, or design skyscrapers, we partner with God in creation.

As I work through The Artist’s Way, something interesting is happening. I feel lighter, freer, and generally happier. The exercises feel more like play and less like work, and every week I look forward to what might come next.

I’ve always been a creative type. I write and dabble in photography and doodle a lot. The Artist’s Way is right up my alley. It might not be for you, but that doesn’t mean you aren’t creative. I tend to agree with Madeleine L’Engle who, in her book Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art, writes, “Unless we are creators we are not fully alive. . . . Creativity is a way of living life, no matter our vocation or how we earn our living. Creativity is not limited to the arts.”

For me, being creative is essential to the maintenance of my motorcycle, the cleaning of my cup, and the care for my interior life. For you it may be different. But each of us has to find the right way to nurture and care for ourselves. Our interior lives, our motorcycles, should run as well as possible.

Poetry Aloud

That poetry is not a larger part of our cultural conversation is not entirely surprising. Poetry has gotten a bad rap as something to be picked apart and analyzed rather than enjoyed for its beauty. We’ve been taught to probe poems, criticize them, and kick them around a bit, and we’ve been taught that all this poetry dissection is somehow good for us. But analysis is cumbersome and steals the joy of poetry. Rather than scrutinizing poems to death, we should be enjoying them.

W.S. Merwin, recently selected as U.S. Poet Laureate, has something to say about “Why Some People Do Not Read Poetry”:

Because they already know that it means
stopping and without stopping they know that
beyond stopping it will mean listening
listening without hearing and maybe
then hearing without hearing and what would
they hear then what good would it be to them
like some small animal crossing the road
suddenly there but not seeming to move
at night and they are late and may be on
the wrong road over the mountain with all
the others asleep and not hitting it
that time as though forgetting it again

I suggest you take a moment to read the poem again, this time out loud. Don’t feel silly; poetry is an aural art. The poem kinda rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it? There’s a lot of music here, especially in the beginning. And not to minimize the importance of the poem, but hearing the words read out loud almost trumps the need to look for meaning. This poem just sounds good. (Of course, its meaning is also poignant for this essay.)

One of the tricks that I’ve learned when it comes to poetry is that it really isn’t about analysis. Not many poets sit down to pen a poem because they hope that someone somewhere down the line will take the time to read and reread their poem dozens of times in order to interpret (or misinterpret) every nuance and meaning. That’s not the point.

Many of us, if not all, were introduced to poetry in an academic setting. It was probably sometime in grade school when rhyming was still considered cool. Just getting the rhymes was the fun part. And being silly helped, too (remember Shel Silverstein?). Later on, though the writing of poetry was still creative and often fun, the reading of poetry was equated with pretension, cryptic symbolism, and men who lived a long, long time ago. Poetry units were something to survive, not something to enjoy.

My poetic education began when I started filling my journals with poems, an occupation that kept my teenage self locked in my room for hours each night. From there I dipped my toe in the pool of postmodern and contemporary poetry, mostly with books from the library. My high school literary education avoided twentieth century poetry at all costs while the novel, of course, was revered.

When I got to graduate school where I majored in creative writing with an emphasis in poetry, it was full-on immersion. And I loved it. Though analysis was still the goal, it was a different kind, emphasizing both craft and historical context. We wrote poetry, read it, memorized it, and recited it. Poetry readings were a dietary staple. The shift away from understanding poems purely in an academic sense came as I heard more poetry read and recited. It was transformational.

The thing about hearing a poem read out loud is that there isn’t time to break the poem apart into deeper meaning. What you have are sounds and phrases and images that hopefully resonate with your soul. A well-crafted poem should make you feel. This is why poetry is good for you. It’s like eating a delicious meal or spending time with a loved one or praying – you should always walk away from it renewed.

Wallace Stevens wrote, “The purpose of poetry is to contribute to man’s happiness.” Dana Gioia adds, “Aesthetic pleasure needs no justification, because a life without such pleasure is not one worth living.” Pleasure, happiness, beauty – these are the reasons to love poems and to listen to poems.

Of course, live poetry readings are the best place to hear poetry. Nothing beats hearing a poet standing before you read her own poem, or recite someone else’s from memory. But if you find yourself living where readings are seldom held, there are plenty of recordings to listen to online. The Poetry Foundation’s podcasts are a great place to start. Look further on the web site for more poets reading poems. YouTube is also a good place to look, if you’re willing to sift through what’s there. Two other sources I recommend are The Caedmon Poetry Collection: A Century of Poets Reading Their Work, a collection of audio CDs, and Poetry Speaks, which includes both audio and printed versions of the poems.

The key is to turn off your critical mind and simply enjoy whatever poems you read or hear, for that, after all, is what the poet has always hoped for you.

The Joy of (Fake) Polaroids

I never had a Polaroid camera. In fact, I have no recollection of ever pushing my little trigger finger into the big red button of someone else’s Polaroid camera, though I’m sure I did. Or at least I must have watched someone else do it and heard that whizzing sound as it spit out a photo waiting to be shook. Polaroid was nothing short of magical. And still, at 28, I don’t have the magic.

But I do have a smartphone. I am steering through the new millennium with a phone that that is “smart,” though never as smart as when I’m using it. And smart as I am, I know a bit of magic when I see it. Magic that was once only available via toy camera. Magic in the form of an app that takes Polaroids. Sort of.

I don’t have an iPhone, but that’s where it started. At my daughter’s first birthday, I tinkered with Hipstamatic on a friend’s iPhone. Hipstamatic is an app that takes digital photos that look analog, like those from Polaroid and toy cameras. I spent the late moments of the party with a phone in front of my face, carefully framing and snapping photos, and then ooh-ing and ahh-ing at the results.

To be honest, I was in my own little world, and it was great. Though I’m an amateur photographer, I take it pretty seriously. But something about that little phone app brought me a different kind of joy, a new kind of satisfaction that I wasn’t used to. So I downloaded FX Camera, a comparable app for my Droid, and thus began the obsession with snapping camera-phone Polaroids.

Concurrent to ’Roid Week on Flickr, I gave my DSLR the week off and took my daily photos with my phone. A lot of photos. Probably more than I should admit. I couldn’t stop pulling my phone out and snapping fake Polaroids – of a street sign, of my daughter, of a football practice at the school around the corner. They look aged and worn. Heck, they just look cool.

I know it’s not the same as using a real Polaroid camera. There’s no whizzing, no waiting, no holding the corner and flapping the developing shot. But I am an adult who doesn’t have a Polaroid camera. And though that could change at any time, the amount of delight I’ve gotten from this silly little smartphone app is worth its weight in instant film.

This Kind of Mother

“I had my foot, I remember, on the door of the bedroom because I’d decided I just simply had to write this story. I wanted to get it down. I put my foot on the door and the children were on the other side beating on the door. And I wrote the whole story with my foot on the door.” – Ruth Stone

I didn’t think I would be this kind of mother. When I was pregnant, I’d often imagine myself finding satisfaction with the daily routine – nursing my daughter, washing her diapers and clothes, caring for our home, making her food from scratch. But when all was said and done and babymoon had ended, I found that motherhood hadn’t changed me. I was still the same person I had always been.

Photo: Lindsay Crandall

Often when I talk with my good friend from graduate school, a beautiful and smart woman who had her first child a year before I had mine, the topics invariably include writing and motherhood. She speaks about Ruth Stone’s foot on the door and affirms that that is not the kind of mother she wants to be. Though we studied poets and writers and wrote copious amounts of poetry in graduate school, my friend is not so drawn to her writing that she would push aside her child for the sake of her art.

Not like Ruth Stone, who described the act of writing a poem to be a physical rush coming through her that would write itself as long as she could get her hands on a pencil and some paper. Stone had to write; it was in her bones. In an interview with Sandra Gilbert, she is quite nonchalant about the “funniest time” when she wrote an entire story with her foot on the door. No remorse. No lamenting. No regret. The writing was having its way with her and the children would have to wait.

Photo: Lindsay Crandall

I suppose to most Stone appears to be a negligent mother. How could she put anything before her children? Isn’t a mother’s first duty to her kids, especially before silly things like writing poems? How could she ignore them like that? These are interesting questions and important ones. They cut into the fabric of our cultural conception of mothers and force us to examine how we define motherhood.

In our culture the general consensus continues to be that moms do everything they can for their kids – taxi them to a wealth of activities, make them nutritious meals, keep them entertained with creative and intellectually stimulating projects, throw the most awesomely spectacular birthday parties – as well as keep a tidy, perfectly decorated house and ensure their husbands are happy. Though we know this is a ridiculously tall order, all that pressure continues to exist.

Photo: Lindsay Crandall

Then we have Ruth Stone, unapologetically dedicated to her writing. My guess is that Stone’s attitude about motherhood is that it was only one facet of who she is. She is not only a mother, but also a writer, a poet, a teacher, and a myriad of various roles.

Some mothers are willing to throw themselves headlong into motherhood, finding their ultimate happiness in all things mommy. Others aren’t. With the increasing convexity of my pregnant belly came the idea that I might be willing to set everything aside for the sake of motherhood. And in adjusting to the addition of Lily to our family, to the feedings and the wakings and endless hours bouncing her in her bouncy seat, I did just that. The transition from two to three is not an easy one. But once my husband and I figured the whole baby thing out, I realized that being a mother isn’t all that I am now — it’s only a piece. It’s an important piece, mind you, but only one piece.

When Lily was three months old, I returned to the workforce part time to teach at a local college. I thought I was ready to do more than stay at home caring for a baby, but I wasn’t. The subsequent months were dark. I worked at taking care of Lily and grading the unending stack of papers every day. I stopped sleeping. I stopped caring about my students, and I became very resentful.

Photo: Lindsay Crandall

Just as I was deciding whether to teach the following semester – hoping that things might get better – I happened upon an article titled “Motherhood as Vocation” that changed everything for me. The author discusses the difficulty in being a stay-at-home mom in a work-dominated culture, especially for women who are educated and have found meaningful work outside of the home before becoming mothers.The article affirms that the work of a stay-at-home mom is of utmost importance, just as important as being a doctor or a lawyer or a novelist. It is work that is shaped by the mother’s experiences and education, and is by no means inferior to other types of work. With that confirmation, I decided to step back from teaching and stay home. I would be that kind of mother.

But being a mother hasn’t changed who I am. It’s changed how I spend my time and how I see the world, but it hasn’t restructured the DNA of my personality and it hasn’t changed who I have always been. In the past month, I have felt passionately that I need to return to my writing.

Photo: Lindsay Crandall

Once upon a time, I wrote a lot, mostly poetry. Since graduate school, though, I haven’t written much purely for the sake of writing. My writing has been for employment but not for my joy or my sanity. So I’ve decided to start writing again, every day, simply to get words on the page and free up the clutter that rattles around in my head.

This is not to the detriment of my daughter. And I don’t think Ruth Stone’s foot on the door was to the detriment of her children either. Though I am a mother, my child simply cannot monopolize my entire life. I’m not hardwired for that. I’m much too introverted and need time alone to think and process what’s going on in my life. Part of that is working on my art, whether it’s taking photographs or writing poems or working on any of the crafting whims to which I’m subject. Perhaps I’m not meant to teach or work outside of my home, but I believe wholeheartedly that my work on this earth includes being both a mother and an artist. These things make me whole. They make me a better person and they make me a better mother.

Photo: Lindsay Crandall

I want to be this kind of mother: one who is fulfilling her calling. I want to be the kind of mother whose love for her child is fierce and unquestionable. I want to be the kind of mother whose child knows that nothing on earth is more important to me than her. But what I want more than anything is for my daughter to learn that when I close the door to do something that takes me away from her, it’s not because I’m negligent or that my art is more important than she is. It’s because this is the kind of woman I am.

Read Sandra Gilbert’s interview with poet Ruth Stone here (beginning on page 52).

Project 365 | 2009

Lofty ambition for 2009: Take a photograph every day
Mission: Failed
Number of daily photographs taken: 253

A brief re-imagined diary of the project:

January. I can do this! I am armed with my little point-and-shoot camera, ready to find something picture worthy every day. A little vacation to my hometown provides fodder for plenty of photographs. Memories. These are beautiful, beautiful memories.

January 15

February. If I don’t take a photo first thing in the morning, or perhaps when I come home for lunch, I am scrambling around to beat the sunset. I need the natural light! Too many crappy photos taken just because I need to take one.

February 13

March. Oh my gosh! My camera isn’t working. What am I going to do? I want a DSLR, but we’re saving for the baby. What to do? What to do?

March 17

March (later). Big sigh. Somehow the camera started working again. Forge ahead.

April. Baby is due this month. I bought a disposable camera and packed lots of batteries just in case the camera stops working at the big moment.

April 14

May 1. Welcome, baby Lily! The camera works.

May 27

May and June. Camera died for real this time. We bought a cheap point-and-shoot, but I’m too tired to take photographs. I spend a lot of time sleeping and staring at my daughter.

July. I am seriously considering abandoning the project. Taking care of an infant is work enough. But I rifled through the photos I’ve taken and found that it’s more than I thought. Many photos of the same little face, and many more days lost.

July 17

August. Vacation at the beach with family. Lots to capture. I returned to teaching part-time, and I feel like I’m working all the time. The camera is idle.

August 6

September and October. Working is too much. The sun never shines. I may never get out of bed again. I started a project called 30 Days of Happiness in an attempt to relieve my funk. My husband buys me a DSLR for my birthday – some relief. The project is a burden. Photography is a burden. Everything is a burden.

October 17

November. The holiday season begins and the semester ends. Light at the end of the tunnel.

November 12

December. I finally figured out the manual settings on my camera. Somehow I still lost two days this month. The project is complete, and I am deeply satisfied.

December 10

What I learned

Don’t give up! Persevere to the end, even if it’s not perfect, even if many, many days are lost. In spite of losing a hundred or so days, I still have a year’s worth of photographs and memories. And in none of them do I see the darkness I felt for a significant part of the year. All I saw was what’s beautiful in my life – the simple, ordinary, lovely things I have that have sustained me through this year’s ups and downs. Most importantly I saw two faces that give me security and purpose and more love that I could ever hope.

Carry your camera with you. If you have a point-and-shoot or a camera phone, you’re all set. Both are portable. Digital SLRs take better photos, but they are bulky and expensive and completely unnecessary for this project.

Don’t be embarrassed to snap a picture of a table. Or a lampshade or your messy kitchen or a tomato. Some of the best photographs aren’t of people’s faces. Faces are important and worth documenting (especially when they are tiny and seem to change every other day), but ordinary things are beautiful, too.

Taking a photograph every day will make you a better photographer. I look back at the photos I snapped at the beginning of last year and the ones I take now, and I’ve come a long way. Inherently you’ll learn about composition and lighting by trial and error. Don’t be afraid to try different things. Take lots and lots of photos. Be thankful for digital photography.

Final thoughts

This project changed my life, or at least the way I see my life. And it helped rekindle my passion for art and creative pursuits. Even though we’re already into a new year, I recommend giving the 365 project a shot (pun intended). Start now! Carry your camera with you and photograph your beautiful life.

View my photos from 2009 and from 2010.

Not So Fast Times, or Call Me Clueless

 

I’m not sure how it happened exactly that I’d never seen Fast Times at Ridgemont High. The movie came out in 1982, and I was born a year earlier, but that shouldn’t have stopped me. I’ve seen The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and a slew of other ’80s films. How did this one pass me by?

But I’ve heard the talk, that this is not a movie to miss, so I queued it up on Netflix and watched it as soon as it came. I watched from beginning to end. And when the credits rolled, I turned off my DVD player and decided that it was a terrible movie. I didn’t like one thing about it. Okay, maybe one thing. At the end, when Stacy decides she wants a relationship rather than sex after a flurry of unfulfilling sexual encounters, I felt a tiny twinge of relief that the film may redeem itself after all. But it was just a twinge, and it went away pretty quickly.

If I took the time to properly analyze the movie, I’m sure I could find more redemption within it and resign myself to the fact that it’s really not that bad of a film. But I don’t want to. It was laced with gratuitous sex, explicit talk, and not enough emotional gravity to make me feel invested in any of the characters. Like many high school flicks, the cast is wrestling with defining themselves in the face of peer pressure. But the movie jumps around so quickly, there’s nothing to hang onto and no time to feel much of anything.

Though I was born in the ’80s, this film wasn’t made for my generation. Perhaps that’s my real problem. I’m not a teenager and I’m not a Gen-X-er, but other ’80s films that weren’t made for me either – films like Sixteen Candles, Can’t Buy Me Love, and Teen Wolf – have left an indelible mark within the constellation of films I’ve seen. So, what gives?

Amy Hecklerling, director of Fast Times, also directed another teen movie I love, one that I always stop to watch if I’m flipping through the channels, one that I’m sure other people hate: Clueless. I knew going into Fast Times that Heckerling directed both movies. I expected more similarity between the two, but there’s not a lot. Clueless may be a dumb teenage chick flick, but it’s got heart, something I didn’t see in Fast Times. Though there’s mention of sex, the entire plot line doesn’t revolve around it. Though there’s some drug use, the movie isn’t about drugs.

It’s about Cher, a teenage girl who transforms from a self-absorbed twit into someone who finds the importance of caring for others. She tries to fix her friends and ends up fixing herself – who wouldn’t love that? The main character in Fast Times, Stacy, also changes from beginning to end, though her transformation comes with an understanding about her self-worth as it relates to sex and relationships. That sounds good, but I didn’t care that much about Stacy. Not like I care about Cher.

Of course, the first time I watched Clueless (as a teenager, I should add), I was a little unnerved by Cher’s hookup at the end of the film. Then I read Jane Austen’s Emma. Clueless is loosely based on Austen’s work, and just as Emma falls for Mr. Knightley who is like a brother to her, [in case you somehow haven’t seen the movie, SPOILER ALERT!!] Cher falls for her stepbrother Josh. Though this doesn’t ease all of my discomfort with the semi-incestuous romance between Cher and Josh, I can forgive it.

I’m sure there are plenty of folks who disagree with me and would love to explain to me why Fast Times at Ridgemont High is totally gnarly and Clueless is a full-on Monet. And perhaps there should be no comparison between the films. They have little in common aside from their director and the age of the casts. At the very least, in watching Fast Times I’ve exposed myself to an important thread in our cultural yarn, one to which many refer with fondness. I’ve seen Phoebe Cates’ naked breasts and witnessed Sean Penn’s surfer dude Spicoli, and maybe I’ve missed the entire point of the movie. If ever asked, though, I will never hesitate to point someone away from Fast Times in favor of much more substantial and satisfying teen flicks.

A Love Letter for the Season

Dear Autumn,

You are the sexiest of all the seasons. When you come around, I drop everything and give myself to you wholly. I will be your mistress, and I will love you even on the darkest and greyest of days. I will lay in the grass and stare up at the nakedest of trees, thinking only of you.

I will never call you fall, only autumn. Fall is so pedestrian, and the way I feel about you is deep and serious and sophisticated. You are the season in which I was born, and I am saturated by you.

It’s my understanding that many people love summer, and prefer it to you. What are they thinking? No afternoon in the hot sun on the beach or beside the pool compares to a hike in an autumn wood or curling up under a fleece blanket beside a crackling fireplace. Who needs the bright colors of summer when they can have the curl of yellow, fiery red, or savory, scrumptious orange? I’d even take your crunchy browns over that summer gleam. I need to tell you that summer doesn’t hold a candle to you, especially for a northern girl who, like me, finds herself living south of the Mason-Dixon line. Spending the summer running from one air conditioned space to another is not my idea of a good time. I loathe air conditioning, and loathe summer all the more for making it necessary. Summer is the most painful of seasons.

Photo: Shari Altman

Photo: Shari Altman

So, every year I wait for you. Beginning in September, when I’ve had all I can take of humid, sweaty, melty days, I check the weather report religiously, waiting for your arrival. I trust that you will rescue me, and every year, without fail, you do. It’s always later than I would hope, usually mid-October, a good month or so after the calendar touts your arrival and long after you’ve swept through my old stomping grounds.

My family calls to tell me that it’s forty degrees when I’m still melting in eighty degree heat. Forty degrees may be cold, but I get jealous. I long for you. I want more than anything to pull down my box of sweaters and wear them all in your name. I want to walk outside and feel my cheeks flush at a passing breeze. I want you with me forever.

Though I am grateful to have you, I know that for now I don’t have you fully. Not here, where I currently call home. Where I live is subtropical, and you don’t venture that far south. Instead you blow kisses in my direction, enough to drop the temperatures a bit, but you prefer the north. You change the colors of their leaves, keep them swaddled in wool scarves and turtlenecks, and encourage the ample stocking of firewood. I don’t begrudge you this. After all, I decided to move away. What I didn’t realize is that I was leaving you. I took you for granted for so many years, and now that I yearn for you and want you back, I can’t have you. And you know it.

Photo: Shari Altman

Photo: Shari Altman

This morning, I went for a walk looking for evidence of you. The sky was grey, swelling with the onset of a storm. The wind gusted and whipped my hair across my face. I saw block after block of green leaves on trees that refuse to admit that summer is over and it’s time to let go.

But then I turned a corner and saw it – just a glimpse. A swirl of brown leaves on the sidewalk peppered with tiny red rebellious leaves, ones that have embraced you, ones that I love. I thought about chasing after them and catching as many little red leaves as I could, but I didn’t want to go overboard. Lord knows who would’ve seen me on the side of the road stuffing leaves into my shirt like a crazed game show contestant or a scarecrow.

I’m not quite that crazy. Instead, my mother-in-law has promised to wax leaves from the north and send them to me soon. Autumn, it’s not soon enough – I want them now.

2910130757_c526336a7f_b

Photo: Shari Altman

You are so much more than cool temperatures and changing leaves. You are a season, a time frame. You are September, October, and November. You are the beginning of the school year and the ushering in of the holidays. You are apples and pumpkins, hayrides, and corn mazes. You are my reason to wear corduroy.

This is a love that will surely endure the test of time.

When my husband and I gear up for baseball playoffs and football Sundays, I know you are close. He spends hours in the kitchen making chili and I make apple crisp and pumpkin bread. It’s all we eat for weeks at a time. We drink pumpkin spice coffee in the mornings and pumpkin ale at night. We savor you.

Autumn, without you, my life would be incomplete. You are the scarf around my neck, the cool air tickling my nose. I love you unapologetically, forever and ever.

To Be Young@Heart

It’s not often that I find a film worth recommending to everyone I know. But once in a while I come across something that’s truly special – redemptive and beautiful and life affirming – and I might as well stand on a busy street corner shouting to passersby that they need to see this film. That they must move this film to position #1 in their Netflix queue and harass the mail carrier every day until he finally brings it.

When I watched Young@Heart, I knew this was one of those rare films.

The movie begins with a wildly excited crowd on their feet cheering for the Young@Heart chorus, a crew whose average age is 80. The gray-haired soloist, with her creaky voice and British accent, begins The Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go,” and quickly the entire chorus is singing joyfully, exuberantly, and with gusto you wouldn’t expect from a group of senior citizens.

Hailing from Northampton, Massachusetts, Young@Heart is a group of two dozen or so seniors who sing rock, punk, and blues in a community chorus under the direction of Bob Cilman. Their repertoire includes songs by Talking Heads, Jimi Hendrix, Prince, and James Brown – songs contemporary enough that those under the age of 50 or so would easily recognize them.

The singers admit that they prefer classical music or opera and they even plug their ears when hearing Sonic Youth’s “Schizophrenia” for the first time, but that’s part of the appeal. No one would expect a group of old folks to get together to sing any of these tunes. No one would expect them to be so full of life.

Young@Heart, now celebrating its 27th year, tours the U.S. and Europe singing music “your mother wouldn’t like.” When British documentarian Stephen Walker heard the group take on David Byrne’s ”Road to Nowhere” on a London stage, he knew this was something special, something worth making a film about. He followed the group through rehearsals for “Alive and Well,” the chorus’s new big show, one that they continue to perform through the autumn of this year. The documentary takes the perspective of any other touring band documentary. The chorus struggles to learn the material, has creative differences, and anticipates the big performance, all while enduring the byproducts of old age – illness, physical frailty, and death.

The Young@Heart Chorus

The Young@Heart Chorus

As much as we’d hope the magic in the music would save them, the group finds themselves in mourning more than once during the film. Out of the sadness comes a determination to live well right up to the end and to celebrate those who’ve passed. With a particularly moving rendition of Coldplay’s “Fix You” in the group’s performance at the end of the film, we see the sense of community and care these folks have for each other.

The final performance is spellbinding. After all their hard work and the concern that some of the songs wouldn’t come together, they do. The performance goes off without a hitch and, in its funny and heartwarming way, makes you want to find out if the chorus is coming to your town, because it would be that much better live.

Young@Heart is about the celebration of life. It’s the kind of film that confirms that life is worth living to the fullest, whether you’re young or old. And in a culture where the elderly are often rolled off to the nursing home instead of revered for their life experience and wisdom, it’s refreshing to see these seniors buck the stereotype and have such fun doing it.

Garbage as Poetry

“He has a formidable brain . . . No other contemporary poet has presented himself so unabashedly as a thinker as well as an artist.”
-Roger Gilbert on A.R. Ammons

Garbage? Poetry? Redemption? These ideas aren’t usually linked together. But out of the heap arose Garbage, A.R. Ammons’s 1993 book-length poem. In an interview for the Paris Review, Ammons responded to a question about Garbage by saying:

My hope was to see the resemblances between the high and low of the secular and the sacred. The garbage heap of used-up language is thrown at the feet of poets, and it is their job to make or revamp a language that will fly again. We are brought low through sin and death and hope that religion can make us new. I used garbage as the material submitted to such possible transformations, and I wanted to play out the interrelationships of the high and the low.

An entire book on garbage may seem a bit extreme, but Ammons’s belief that a correlation exists between language and trash was strong enough to warrant a book-length poem of discussion. And it won him the National Book Award as well as the Library of Congress’s Rebekah Johnson Bobbitt National Prize for Poetry. In his exploration into language and garbage as the lowest common denominator of human experience, Ammons asserts that through both language and garbage redemption is possible by sorting through human experience – the high and low, the sacred and secular.


Photo: S. H.

Throughout Garbage, Ammons continually refers to two things – poetry and garbage – and the epigraph for the book sets the tone for the relationship between the two. Ammons dedicates the book “to the bacteria, tumblebugs, scavengers,/wordsmiths-the transfigurers, restorers.” “Bacteria, tumblebugs,” and “scavengers” are all intrinsically linked to garbage, existing within a pile of garbage because they are drawn to garbage and love garbage. In the same way, “wordsmiths” are intrinsically linked to language, drawn to language, and love language. “Bacteria, tumblebugs,” and “scavengers” are makers, creating something from garbage, whereas “wordsmiths” are makers who create from language.

The importance of the language-garbage relationship is that values thought to be lost must be restructured because language and poetry are life-giving. Both are redeeming for mankind. By paralleling a heap of language and a heap of garbage, Ammons reveals two of the most important byproducts of human existence. Ammons writes,

garbage has to be the poem of our time because

garbage is spiritual, believable enough

to get our attention, getting in the way, piling

up, stinking, turning brooks brownish and

creamy white: what else deflects us from the

errors of our illusionary ways, not a temptation

to trashlessness, that is too far off, and,

anyway, unimaginable, unrealistic.

If Ammons is arguing that garbage and language are equivalent, then the words garbage and language here are interchangeable. Language is “spiritual,” foundational, and fundamental to human beings, and so is our consumption, our byproducts, our garbage. Ammons also assesses language in writing about the implications words have had on the planet:

a waste of words, a flattened-down, smoothed-
over mesa of Styrofoam verbiage; since words were

introduced here things have gone poorly for the
planet: it’s been between words and rivers,

surface-mining words and hilltops, cuneiform
records in priestly piles; between clay

tablets and irrigated fields: papyrus in
sheets; vellum in Alexandria; hundreds of

temples to type and, now, networks of words
intricate as the realities they represent.

It is words that provide sustenance for people. As the world is a house for bodies, language is a house for our spirits and souls. Language has the power to transform the world not into physicality but into words, poetry, and imagination. And it is from language that all things of value are gathered-love, connection, truth, identity.

Ammons argues that language takes us through the low, the death, the secular, and moves us through to the high, the redemptive, the sacred. Language and garbage have the ability to take the reader high and low and, eventually, to redemptive ground. “Poetry is not logic or/knowledge or philosophy,” he writes. No; it is a mixture of sacred and secular, transforming human beings in the same way that religion transforms them. Ammons’s view of the secular and the sacred is that both coexist simultaneously – that there exists secular and sacred in everything.

As a metaphor, garbage may feel a bit far fetched, but Ammons is onto something here. We consume, we use, and we are left with the byproducts, in waste and with our words. We can no more easily separate ourselves from our trash than we can the words that slip from our lips. In a tapestry of poetic goodness juxtaposed against landfill remainders, we can find ourselves – the good, the bad, the even worse – and find that there’s hope and renewal.

Nurturing Creativity and Harboring Genius

You can just feel it. Autumn is on its way, and with it, a new school year. It’s always been my favorite time of year – a time for beginnings, to learn something new, to grab life by the tail and make things better than they were last year. And though I’m not in school anymore, I do teach part-time and I get a little giddy while attempting to weave together my syllabus.

I teach composition: not the most scintillating of courses, and a general education requirement, to boot. I always want to do something radical, something creative, something different. Last year, exhausted from working a full-time job and having just found out I was pregnant, my class was ordinary and (dare I say) boring. But this year, I’m feeling a bit ambitious.

Right now, I’m in the incubating stage, gathering as much information as possible in hopes of synthesizing what I find into something coherent and interesting. Often the trail leads me to things I would have never considered, or at the very least, expand my horizons a bit. (It also gives me a bit of time to procrastinate while pretending to be productive.)

In one such recent venture, I found myself on the TED web site, browsing through the TEDTalks. TED is a great place to find inspiration – the talks focus on technology, entertainment, and design, and there are hundreds of these short talks from fascinating and brilliant people. Someone had suggested I listen to Elizabeth Gilbert’s talk on nurturing creativity. I read Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love last year and, though it’s not my favorite book, I figured she’d having something interesting to say.

Let me tell you: the talk is fascinating.

In the wake of her maddening success from Eat, Pray, Love, people continually ask her if she’s afraid that she’ll never find success like that again. Gilbert’s answer: yes. But she made a commitment to herself early on to be a writer – she never promised to be a great writer or a successful writer. She just knew that she would write.

She goes on to discuss the concept of genius and the difference between being a genius and having genius. In the contemporary world, we say people are geniuses, that their brilliance and creativity comes from within them. But in ancient times, genius was considered to be a disembodied other that would inspire brilliance and creativity in human beings. Like Dobby the house elf, Gilbert imagines that the genius sits in the corner of the room where someone’s working and either inspires or doesn’t. All you do is show up and do your work – that’s your part. If the genius shows up, you attribute your creativity to it, and if it doesn’t, it’s not completely your fault that your work wasn’t amazing.

It kind of takes the load off.

Essentially, she proposes, we are nothing more than vessels for creativity, bodies that translate what the genius provides into one form or another – words, paintings, skyscrapers, whatever. Gilbert illustrates this in the poet Ruth Stone who, as a young person working in the fields in rural Virginia, would hear a poem rushing at her and start racing to find a pen and a piece of paper so she could record it as it passed by. If she got it, wonderful; if she missed it, the poem was meant for someone else.

But Gilbert says that not all of us are pipelines for the genius; some of us are mules. Some of us have to slave and work and sweat and hope that we might brush up against something brilliant. Sometimes we do and sometimes we don’t, but we have to show up and put in the work or it’ll never happen.

I started thinking a lot about this (though I still haven’t found a way to work it into my classes this year). I thought about how being a writer involves doggedly sloshing through ideas and words, spelling them out and deleting them over and over. How one idea leads to another and another and suddenly the perfect, easy, magical thing appears. And sometimes it doesn’t. Likewise, teaching involves as much inspiration from an “other” as it does preparation because teaching is fluid, filled with organic interactions among people. There’s no way to control it – sometimes I’m on and sometimes I’m way, way off.

This other, disembodied genius is not unlike the Christian idea of the Holy Spirit, a concept that Gilbert touches on, though not in those terms. She describes dancers in the deserts of North Africa centuries ago who would gather to dance together and, very rarely, one person would light up and become transcendent. The others would recognize it as God within them and begin clapping and chanting the name “Allah.”

Christians think of the Holy Spirit working the same way as genius – with us, part of us, inspiring us for the Kingdom of God. Though most of us don’t live in a state of constant spiritual inspiration, we do the work of prayer, study, and loving others with the promise that the Spirit will work through us and in us at the right time. We make the commitment and do the work – that’s our part. But just as we can’t assume responsibility for our own creativity, we can’t take credit for the work of the Spirit. We are vessels and pipelines and mules and slaves.

This idea of nurturing creativity and having genius begs a closer look at our culture. We are so dominated by performance – in school, in the workplace, in relationships – that just showing up to do the work and waiting for the light bulb to go off isn’t really enough. We’re expected to be on all the time, and if we aren’t, we’re failures. We get bad grades from our teachers, demeaned by employers, ridiculed in our personal lives. We’re expected to always do our best, but told that it’s not enough if today’s best isn’t as good as yesterday’s. And in many ways, it feels very, very wrong.

I’m not suggesting that we start handing out A’s to everyone simply for showing up. We do have to work and should be expected to work hard – without hard work, the world would be chaotic.

But maybe we shouldn’t be so hard on ourselves when we don’t perform well. Maybe for as many times as we’re on, we’re very, very off. And maybe that’s okay. Maybe we’re not all meant to be geniuses but, most assuredly, we will have moments when we are touched by genius.

Banana Split Cake:
All-American Dessert

My cooking skills are laughable – or they were, until a few months ago. No one ever taught me to cook, so my abilities never stretched beyond making macaroni topped with shredded cheese or popping a frozen pizza in the oven and pairing it with a sliced cucumber. It’s embarrassing to admit. My husband jokes that when he married me I could burn water. And it was more or less true.

After thumbing through Alice Waters’s The Art of Simple Food, devouring Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, and recently reading Molly Wizenberg’s A Homemade Life, I made the conscious decision to take my culinary destiny into my own hands. A life lived well cannot be sustained exclusively on food that originates in a box. With the help of my husband, who cooks intuitively and has been designated cook at the fire station where he works, I have taken to slow roasting vegetables, building homemade pizzas, and experimenting with soups. I may still fumble around the kitchen, but I can follow a recipe (most of the time).

Though I’m not much of a cook, I’ve always loved baking. My early repertoire included boxed brownies and cookies from a tube – though, again embarrassingly, I did forget to add egg to a batch of brownies I made for my husband early in our marriage, and they were just plain disgusting. In recent years, I’ve taken on breads, cookies, cereals, and cakes, all from scratch and all delicious. Somehow, whipping together baked goods comes more easily to me – perhaps because, to me, baking equals love. Taking the time to piece together a dessert, in particular, is akin to lavishing my own “sugar” on others.

But now it’s summer in Alabama, and baking when the it’s nearing 100 degrees outside is absurd. That’s why the perfect summer confection should never go near the oven. My perfect summer dessert is banana split cake – a no bake, layered dessert that shouts to be eaten outdoors at a picnic in July. It evokes memories of the Fourth of July, swimming and running around before recharging with a sugary slice.

Now, I want to get one thing straight – this isn’t an organic whole food dessert. It is heartily all-American: buttery, sugary, and layered with fruits shipped from tropical locations or packed into a can or jar. Surely, Alice Waters would slap me on the wrist for suggesting it to you. The recipe was passed to my mother from an older neighbor when I was a baby, so we’re not exactly sure where it originated. All I know is, when I fed it to my husband, he oohed and mmmed all the way through it.


Banana Split Cake

3 1/2 sticks of butter (do not substitute)
3 cups of graham cracker crumbs
2 cups of confectioners’ sugar
2 eggs
4 bananas
20 oz. can of crushed pineapple
Chopped walnuts
Maraschino cherries
Large tub of whipped topping

Melt 1 1/2 sticks of butter in a small sauce pan. Mix in graham cracker crumbs. Be sure to mix thoroughly or your crust won’t lift out of the pan with rest of your slice (this happened to me). Press into a 9 inch by 13 inch pan and put into the freezer to harden.

In a large bowl, mix the confectioner’s sugar, eggs, and 2 sticks of softened butter. Beat on high speed with a hand mixer for about 10 minutes, until the mixture becomes a thick, creamy custard.

Pull the pan out of the freezer. Layer the custard mixture before adding a layer of sliced bananas, each about a half inch thick. It helps to slice the bananas as you add them, rather than slice all four bananas beforehand. Drain the can of crushed pineapple, and spread on top of the bananas. Next, layer the whipped topping and top it with as many walnuts and cherries as you want. Chill for 1-2 hours before serving.

Voila! A dessert perfect in the sweltering summer. As much as I try to make my foods from scratch and buy local, fresh ingredients, I can’t imagining tinkering with this recipe. But I’m sure with a little creative forethought, several of the ingredients could be substituted to suit your fancy, or the recipe could be tweaked to include fewer processed ingredients. To me, it’s perfect as is.

I will offer one tiny serving suggestion: Enjoy it with someone you love! All those oohs and mmms make sharing this cake all the better.

Fashion Designer Academic
Interview with Made By Rachel

lovedcblackdress1threadwindow2

When I met Rachel Chaffee, we were both in college. I would be her successor as editor of the school’s newspaper. She graduated that year, and we didn’t meet again until graduate school in a creative nonfiction class. We spent a semester carpooling to class and having semiserious chats about feminism, academia, and our classmates. But when Facebook’s suggestive connecting of old friends put us back in touch, I learned that Rachel had started a Ph.D. program in Education: Teaching, Curriculum, and Change at the University of Rochester in Rochester, New York, and had set up her own sewing business, Made By Rachel. Struck by Rachel’s ambition, I was delighted when she agreed to share a bit about her passion for creating, her new collection, and how she balances her academic and creative lives.

How did Made By Rachel get started?

I had been sewing for myself for years and I started getting requests for custom-made handbags. At first, I only did custom work through word of mouth, but once I had a small pile of vintage fabrics going, I decided to sew my first collection and sell it online and in stores. While I was sewing vintage handbags, I also did a small collection of totes and needle and notions cases for knitters, which I sold across the U.S. and in Canada for a year. I still get requests from knitters, but I’ve moved on from sewing handbags. As much as I love a great bag, I was getting bored, so I started sewing clothing collections starting in the summer of 2007.

What inspires you, and where do you get ideas for your creations?

I’ve always been inspired by things that have had other “lives” before I found them. For example, I’m a little nuts about vintage buttons. One of my favorite things is finding tins of old buttons in antique shops. Every Christmas, my mom and my brother put individually wrapped old buttons in my stocking; it’s my favorite part of Christmas morning.

I’m the sort of person who likes to occasionally go through all of her buttons and vintage fabrics, lay them out, and see if they speak to me. I’m also the kind of person who looks at a lot of design blogs multiple times a week and spends too much time on Etsy. (Etsy is dangerous for people who like buttons.)

For the last two years, a lot of my ideas for collections have come from looking at mixed media work. When I was a teenager, I used to make a lot of collages out of tiny pieces of paper, and I can see that emerging in how I think creatively fifteen years later. Last summer’s dress collection had a tiny bit of mixed stuff going on, but the leather accessory collection I’m working on now has more elements of that side of things-I’m trying to combine leather, thread, yarn, snaps, and so on. A lot of guys who find out that I’m making leather cuffs have given me a lot of input on what they would love to see but can’t find anywhere, so their thoughts motivate me to try something different.

What is a typical day like when you’re working on a collection?

I recently made a conscious decision to work on my next collection in a totally different way. I used to design a collection and then work nonstop, morning to night, for days until it was done. I realized this spring that being a full-time Ph.D. student leaves you exhausted at the end of the academic year, so I’m trying to take things down a notch and go at this summer’s collection a bit differently. My goal for June is to give myself some decompression time and try to be less intense. A typical day looks like this: I spend my morning either running (I’m training for my first half marathon!) or reading and writing for my comprehensive exams (coming up this fall). If I’m lucky, I grab lunch with my husband and then spend the afternoon sewing with all the windows open. The key will be to try to balance working on the leather collection and working on our house renovations. We bought a circa 1862 house last year and we’ve ripped out the entire upstairs. As soon as the upstairs is done, we’re gutting the downstairs. It’s a bit tight right now, but soon I’ll be able to work in my studio upstairs rather than at the dining room table.

Part of the goal of The Curator is to uncover signs of “the world that ought to be” as we find it in our midst. What part do you think your creations have in building that world?

I’m really committed to designing with as much recycled material as possible. I’m also doing my best to support the handmade community that has grown immensely in the last few years by buying handmade. The friends I’ve found in that community have been instrumental in keeping me focused on the importance of keeping things simple by buying handmade rather than cheap, mass produced materials. This is easier said than done. When talented women like Anna Marie Horner are designing amazing fabrics, it’s hard not to buy yards of every design. However, I also want to support the women (and men) who, through their creative work, have inspired me to appreciate the process of making something.

We who are Americans, I think, are very detached from the people who make what we consume, whether that’s a skirt I wear or fabric I buy to sew myself a skirt. I think we ought to be more conscious of the decisions we make when we consume. For me, this process has included consciously trying to find a balance: it’s not that I don’t love a new piece of fabric, but it serves a different purpose for me. When I buy materials that are recycled, I think of them as having a different sort of history-one more traveled. It’s been interesting to try to find recycled leather for my current project, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised by what I have discovered in random places.

Where are your collections available for purchase?

Since I started my Ph.D., I’ve decided to only work on collections in the summer when I’m not in the middle of coursework and keep the availability limited to Thread, a local boutique in my neighborhood in Rochester, New York. I support Thread for multiple reasons: They were the first (and still the only) store of their type in my neighborhood (and in my city), and the owners (Sandy and Mike) are invested in supporting independent and local designers. I might expand online or in other stores once I’ve finished my degree, but I’m only halfway through, so Thread is it for now.

What other creative endeavors have you been part of?

I used to design knitting patterns with my friend Lucinda at Modalura, but that was a short-lived endeavor. I still knit, but I don’t have time to continue designing patterns. I also volunteer on the advisory board for my local farmer’s market, the South Wedge Farmer’s Market, and volunteer on its marketing committee. My friend and fellow artist Shanna Murray does all the creative design and I work with a few other people to support the design and marketing work for the market. It’s an exciting process to be in a supporting position for the local food movement where I live. It’s enabled me to meet so many creative people and farmers in Western New York.

How do you balance your personal, academic, and creative lives?

I thought I was a really good person when it came to balancing things, but I recently discovered that the last two years of buying and renovating a house, being a full-time graduate student, working in academics, being married, volunteering in my community, and trying to push out collections has been way too much for me! Fortunately, I’m married to a wonderful guy who is a designer and my most important source of encouragement – creatively, academically, and otherwise. It’s been hard to slow down my creative life so that I can get through my Ph.D. program, but limiting my collections to the summer months has helped me carve out space all year so that I can do both.

What does the future hold for Made By Rachel?

I can honestly say that I don’t know! Once the current summer collection is done, I’m going to take some time to sew for myself because I miss making things for me. I also want to make things for our first house, so I’ll probably continue to do some custom work through the fall. I’m not sure about next year’s collection, but that’s the way I like it. This is the first time I’ve worked with leather and haven’t sewn clothes. It has been interesting and fun to challenge myself to learn something new: new tools, new materials, new hardware. I’m open to doing something completely different next summer. I didn’t decide on doing the leather collection until March of this year, so who knows what I’ll be making a year from now. I think it’s more fun that way.

The Simple Complex Life


Photo: Lindsay Crandall

I take a lot of walks with my husband and our dog. She’s a rat terrier. Think of a Jack Russell with longer legs and smoother hair and you’ve got it – she’s hyper and she’s a handful. Because I’m almost nine months pregnant, the purpose of our walks are twofold: I get some exercise (which is supposed to “help things along”), and she gets a lot of energy out. She zigs and zags around, sniffing everything and dragging us behind her. She’s only 17 pounds, but I won’t walk her alone anymore for fear she’ll tip me off balance.

Occasionally, we’ll drive her to a nearby park – one that’s adjacent to the art museum and filled with sculptures, ponds, and lots of Canadian geese. She has plenty of room to explore and, of course, chase the birds. Last week, my husband led her down to the edge of the pond and she ran in at full tilt. She splashed around and barked at the geese until she realized she was up to her neck and swimming and the birds had all flown away. As we continued walking along the pond, she kept climbing down to get back into the water. My husband and I found all of this hilarious. After a swimming fiasco a few summers ago, we figured she wasn’t much of a water lover. I guess we were wrong.

As we continued our walk, I found myself thanking God for this life he’s given me. With so much beauty around me, a dog totally in love with life, a husband who I adore, and a baby on the way, I couldn’t help myself but give thanks. I know this sounds idyllic, but it was an idyllic moment, one where I was struck with how satisfying a simple life can be. I covet these moments. I savor them.

It seems that most people my age are so busy. They’re “out there” living life, spending money, and building experience. And I’ve been doing it, too. I spent the first trimester of this pregnancy working a full-time job and teaching part-time, and it nearly killed me. I look back and ask myself why I felt compelled to do so much, and a large part of my answer is that everyone else was doing it.


Photo: Lindsay Crandall

But somewhere in the past few months, I’ve been wanting a simpler life. Part knee-jerk reaction to the recession, part desire to slow down and enjoy life, I’ve been embracing simplicity and living intentionally. My father told me when I was in college that one of the secrets of life is to do less. It’s only been recently that his words have made any sense. Doing less goes hand in hand with living intentionally, making choices about my time that are healthy rather than convenient. I’m learning how to cook from scratch, grow and care for a garden, knit and sew, and generally enjoy being at home. I bake and hang clothes on the clothesline in our yard and eat foods that are in season and, preferably, locally grown. I spent the majority of my teenage years trying to get out of the house in order to establish my identity, only now to have spent the better portion of my twenties in my own home trying to establish my identity.

In an interview in Orion, Wendell Berry said, “Simplicity means that you have brought things to a kind of unity in yourself; you have made certain connections. That is, you have to make a just response to the real complexity of life in this world. People have tried to simplify themselves by severing the connections. That doesn’t work. Severing connections makes complication. These bogus attempts at simplification ignore or despise the real complexity of the world. And ignoring complexity makes complication – in other words, a mess.”

According to Berry, we should be striving for a complex life: that is, real living. It’s simple to eat out or call a plumber when the sink backs up, or throw laundry in the dryer. It’s simple to clutter time with an abundance of activities outside of the home, or worse, with television. What we think of as a simple life is actually quite complex. It involves hard work, planning, and patience. In my attempts to do less, I’ve found that I don’t actually do less, just different activities. I try to pursue what I consider simple pleasures: taking photographs, baking bread, and connecting with friends and neighbors.


Photo: Lindsay Crandall

It’s become a philosophy of living, one that is certainly not easy. But it affords me time for reflection and the conscious enjoyment of the sweet and simple moments in life, moments I look forward to as my life goes on. Berry recommends having a plan: “A plan really is useful for signifying to yourself and other people that you like living, that you’re looking forward to living some more, that you have a certain appetite to continue the enterprise. But one’s real duty to the future is to do as you should do now. Make the best choices, do the best work, fulfill your obligations in the best way you can, and work on a scale that’s appropriately small. Make plans that are appropriately small. If you do those things, then the future will take care of itself. But if you don’t do those things, then you build up a debt against the future.”

Whether simple or complex, we need time to face who we really are, time to reflect on what and how we are doing. To me, that is ultimately what a simple life is: one uncluttered enough to give me a clear view of myself.

How to Read a Book


Photo: Steve Mishos

“Reading is to the mind as exercise is to the body.” -Sir Richard Steele

At a lecture I once attended on reading, the lecturer quoted Mark Twain who said, “The man who doesn’t read is no better off than the man who can’t read.” It was an idea I hadn’t considered before, and I had one of those moments where things clicked. Twain’s words still ring true despite all of our entertainment technologies and distractions.

But in 2007, an Associated Press-Ipsos poll found that one in four American adults had not read a book in the previous year. Just over a thousand people were surveyed. The poll qualified people into various demographics, though none gave a definitive answer to the question. Why did 25% not read at least one book in the course of a year? And was this an accurate cross section for American adults in general?

When I came across Jill Noel Kandel’s essay “Asking for Salt” in Image last summer, it struck me that maybe non-readers are not just people who don’t like to read. In the essay, Kandel tries to teach her son Brian to read. Brian doesn’t retain the alphabet and can’t remember the sounds the letters make. It’s a constant struggle for Kandel, who can see that her son is intelligent, compassionate, and loving. For some unknown reason, there is a disconnect in his brain which prevents him from reading. At the beginning of the essay, Brian is eight years old; at the end, he is sixteen and still can’t read. It’s heartbreaking.

I think a lot about what it means to be a reader – what reading is really worth. The truth is, I love to read, but this wasn’t always the case. I know plenty of people who can read but choose not to, and for years I was counted among them. As a child, I learned to read early and easily, but didn’t spend much time reading. I found other things to occupy my time, like watching television. And I watched a lot of television, something that became a crutch I’d eventually have to wean myself off of. In fact, like most American families, much of my home life was centered around watching television. If my parents read books when I was young, I never knew.

I finished high school having been in honors English, though I read very few books cover to cover, mostly cracking open novels enough to get the gist and write a decent essay. When I got to college, I still read very few books, only reading in its entirety what piqued my interest or what I forced myself to get through in order to add insight to discussions. But during college, I could feel a shift away from television and toward reading. My double major in English and communication led me through studies of the media’s effect on the masses and how to think critically about the information I absorb, all while studying literature ranging from the greats to the relatively obscure. In the midst of it all, I knew I wanted to be a reader.

During that time, my classes led me to two books that informed the shift toward my becoming a reader: Marie Winn’s The Plug-In Drug and Mortimer J. Adler’s How to Read a Book. They are counted among favorites on my bookshelf, even now, six years later.

The Plug-In Drug is a look at how television-watching affects children and the family unit. Winn stresses the importance of having a family life without television and gives parents the tools necessary to manage the medium. This book radically changed my perspective on television. I started thinking more intentionally about how much time I devoted to passively gazing at images on the screen, and the impact of that action on my relationships.

Adler’s book, on the other hand, delves into the depths of reading, an action Adler qualifies into four levels: elementary, inspectional, analytical, and syntopical. Honestly, it’s pretty dry, but is sprinkled with enough useful information for the wannabe reader to have held my interest. Adler encourages readers to inspect the books they read from cover to cover and make lots of notes in the margins. He thinks readers should be asking questions of the literature they read and think about how texts might interrelate (the fourth level of reading). But there is one tip from this book that’s stayed with me: read for long periods of time. In reading for more than a few minutes here or there, you have time to sink in and develop a relationship with the book, and the book in turn has a greater opportunity to work its magic on you.

I don’t know exactly how, but in my senior year of college, it just clicked for me. I became a reader and always had a book by my side. Now my home is littered with piles of books, and I have a to-read list that grows by the day. I love the idea that we each carry with us what Gabriel Zaid calls in So Many Books a reading constellation, a catalog of books read, unique to each reader. Zaid writes that the books you read must speak to you in some profound way, even if they aren’t the classics or mainstream fiction.

As a writer, I find it particularly important to read often and read widely, so I do. I admire people who read voraciously, and I want to be counted among them. I read to keep my mind sharp and because it makes me smarter than I actually am. I read because it engages me in a way nothing else does and nourishes my soul. I love everything about books, down to the way they smell, and believe wholeheartedly that every word on every page that I lay my eyes on informs who I am.

As a woman about to become a mother, I wonder what shapes certain people into readers and others into (essentially) non-readers. I want my child to learn to love reading. So does Jill Noel Kandel.

My husband, as a child, struggled with reading, and he still does. He doesn’t have a learning disorder, but learns better from hearing and doing. That’s not to say that he doesn’t read. He could outread me on anything having to do with Irish civilization. But maybe not everyone is meant to be a reader, even if they’re literate. Maybe the written word doesn’t nourish everyone’s soul in the same way, or at all. Like so many things, we can only influence our child; we can’t force him or her to love reading or, as in Kandel’s case, even to have the capacity to read. All my husband and I can do for our child, in hopes that he or she will learn to love reading, is read aloud often, turn the television off, and foster the attitude that reading is an important component of the human experience. From there, we’ll let the chips fall where they may.

Moon Pies, Beads, and Racial Tension:
The Original American Mardi Gras

I’m not from the South, and I had never been to a Mardi Gras parade until I moved to the Gulf Coast of Alabama. For me, Mardi Gras had no real caché – I’m not Catholic, was never big on drunken parties, and had no desire to swap a peek at my body for beads or anything else. It was just a big party in New Orleans, and though I frequently observe Lent, I never planned to attend Mardi Gras.

But then I moved to Mobile, the birthplace of American Mardi Gras, and have since learned more about the holiday than I ever thought I would. Most importantly: Mardi Gras did not originate in New Orleans, though that city has since taken the whole celebration over and perverted it beyond its original intent. The first Mardi Gras celebrations in America were in Mobile, Alabama, where I currently reside, which was the capital of the French colony of Louisiana in the early 18th century. The first Mardi Gras celebration, in 1703, was a means for the French colonists to remember their homeland roots. It wasn’t until 1720 that the Louisiana capital was moved to New Orleans, where Mardi Gras was adopted. Compared to the civilized and well-organized Mobile Mardi Gras celebrations, the New Orleans celebrations were mere gatherings with no organized activities. The people just celebrated in whatever way best suited them.

When I learned that Mardi Gras was celebrated here in Mobile, I wasn’t interested. But people assured me that it wasn’t the breast-flashing heathen fest I had seen on television in the Big Easy – they called Mobile’s celebration “family friendly.” So, my husband and I headed to our first parade to get a taste for ourselves. My previous parade experiences had been limited to Memorial Day and Fourth of July parades, where people would set up their lawn chairs on the side of the road and watch the parade pass. If candy was thrown, it was usually Tootsie Rolls or Bazooka Joe bubble gum, and the children would run into the street to fetch as much candy as they could. There were floats, but mostly it was marching bands, jump-roping clowns, and politicians sitting on the backs of convertibles. Mardi Gras is nothing like this.

Huge crowds gather into mosh-pit-like packs, and there’s nowhere to sit. Massive floats make their ways down the street, one after another, with “throws” tossed into the crowd – anything from beads and moon pies (a Mardi Gras favorite) to stuffed animals and cups. The floats are usually linked thematically – for example, last year we went to a parade themed “The World Loves a Clown,” with floats ranging from Batman’s Joker to Krusty the Clown – and costumed revelers stand atop, throwing their various goodies. Marching bands and dance troupes break up some of the madness, but everyone goes to the parades for the throws.

And it is a lot of fun. People in the crowds yell and wave their hands and bump into each other. They grab and horde and what surprised me is that they also share, something I learned from a young boy who gave me a stuffed animal he had caught because he knew I didn’t want any more beads. The only real rule is to pay attention and keep your hands in the air, ready to catch anything thrown at you, which we learned the hard way after my husband was given a bloody forehead by a wayward cup.

But Mardi Gras is so much more than the parades. There are more than fifty Mardi Gras mystic societies, each autonomous of the rest, with new ones added every year. Each holds a reception or ball, and about twenty-five hold their own parades. Associations require dues from each member, as well as attendance to regular meetings, float building, and sometimes, fundraising. Many associations have a waiting list – some of the more coveted have waiting lists of up to ten years – and often membership is passed from one generation to the next. Members ride on the floats, dressed in costumes with masks so that no one at the parade can identify them. The Mardi Gras balls are often exclusive or semi-exclusive, requiring nonmembers to have an in with a member in order to get a ticket. At the balls, members dress in character or the men wear tails and women wear evening gowns.

Then there are the kings and queens. The city celebrates Mardi Gras in two carnivals – the Mobile Carnival Association (MCA) carnival and the Mobile Area Mardi Gras Association (MAMGA) carnival – and each chooses a king and queen. MCA’s “royalty” are white, while MAMGA are African American. Queens are drawn from a pool of debutantes, the rest of whom become the queen’s ladies in waiting. Each lady in waiting chooses her own knight, usually her boyfriend, to accompany her to Mardi Gras functions. The MCA king is usually dubbed “King Felix III” (no matter what his real name is) and is said to “mis-rule” over Mardi Gras. The MAMGA king is called “King Elexis.” Both MCA and MAMGA hold their own functions, coronation ceremonies, and parades, though the two associations don’t usually mingle.

What is most surprising – or maybe not – about Mardi Gras in Mobile is how segregated it remains. The 2008 documentary The Order of Myths, which followed the 2007 Mardi Gras celebration in Mobile, focuses its attention on MCA and MAMGA and their blatant division by race. Most of Mobile’s parade organizations are white, with the exception of one integrated society, founded in 2003, which has only one white member. The film follows the preparations before Mardi Gras, from luncheons and parties to the extravagance and labor of the royal court’s attire to the everyday lives of the people involved.

In the film, the differences in the two sets of royalty are notable. King Felix receives a key to the city from the mayor (the city’s first black mayor), though King Elexis does not. Queen Helen of MCA is from a very old, high society Mobile family, in stark contrast to MAMGA’s Queen Stephanie, who laments her estimation of financial expense for Mardi Gras to be equal to purchasing a car. (Ironically, Queen Helen’s family owned the slave ship that brought Queen Stephanie’s family to the United States from Africa.)

The interviews with various Mardi Gras affiliates (including a few masked interviewees), which pepper the film, are where the real spirit of racial tension emerges. Most tiptoe around the issue, stating that it’s the blacks or “colored people” who want to keep Mardi Gras separate in order to retain their own traditions and roots, but it is evident that both blacks and whites are torn between sticking to tradition and taking steps to try to integrate the yearly celebration. This seemed to stem from the looming question of how to integrate, to which no one has a real answer.

In 2007, the MAMGA king and queen made an appearance at the MCA coronation ceremony, and were the first from MAMGA to do so, despite having been invited for the past 30 years or so. The MCA king and queen reciprocated by attending the MAMGA coronation ceremony the following night, and were the first set of royalty to attend a MAMGA event. This appeared to be a step in the right direction, though the MCA king in an interview later in the film seemed more interested in preserving tradition than trying to intentionally integrate, stating that it’s something that should be done in the future but not right now.

The Order of Myths offers no real answer but merely presents both sides of the celebration in order to provide fodder for conversation. Perhaps things can change. In any case, Mobilians take Mardi Gras seriously. And in spite of the racial dynamics, it is a seriously good time. The two week celebration is imperative to Mobile’s economy, with millions of dollars allocated by mystic society and association members as well as the city itself. Though much of the celebration’s framework is similar to the one in New Orleans, with the secret societies and parades, the focus of Mobile’s Mardi Gras is tradition and celebration rather than partying and drinking. Mobilians are right – it is family oriented and safe. And as a non native, what I know for sure is it’s a whole lot of fun.

Operation NICE:
A Reminder that Niceness Counts

Like so many of us, as a child I was taught to mind my manners. We called them P’s and Q’s, and to this day I still use them. I cover my mouth when I sneeze or yawn, try not to interrupt others when they are talking, hold the door open for the people, and say thank you.

But I have to admit it: I have a problem being nice.

The problem is that I sometimes feel like I’m the only one making an effort. People seem to get ruder and more self involved, and I somehow got it in my head that I should be a one-woman vigilante for manners. In doing so, I became blunt, forthright, and even rude to people who were rude to me. And when it occurred to me how contrary to my original intentions my behavior had become, I was embarrassed, to say the least. So, instead, I have tried to apply Gandhi’s philosophy: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”

It’s difficult, but I try. Especially lately. Having made a commitment to myself to slow down and stop rushing through every moment, I have made being nice, kind, and caring a priority. A lot of my time and energy is devoted to thinking about this, so when I saw a badge on someone’s blog that said, “I’m Very Nice | OperationNice.com,” I was intrigued. I abandoned the blog reading to click the badge and stumbled into Operation NICE, the ambitious project blog of Melissa Morris Ivone, a 28-year-old graphic designer in the Philadelphia area.

Melissa is someone who believes in the power of kindness, especially after experiencing an unexpected friendly act on a bad day. “My day was completely turned around by a gentleman who performed the kind gesture of smiling and letting me enter the elevator first,” she recalls. “It was so minor and didn’t require any effort on the man’s part, yet it really brightened my day. So, I started thinking about what a different world we would live in, if only people were more mindful of being polite.” So began Operation NICE in July 2008.

Hoping to encourage people to be intentionally nice, Melissa fashioned ON into a blog that features stories of kindness from readers and around the world, products that promote the concept of kindness, websites with similar missions, and weekly assignments. Each entry is categorized into Nice Stuff, Nice Giveaway, Nice Testimonial, Nice Chit Chat, Nice Sites, and Nice Assignment. Stories range from the boss who paid for his employee’s flight home for her grandfather’s funeral to simple, effortless gestures like an unexpected compliment. The Nice Assignment, in particular, offers readers a weekly challenge to be nice by creating a mantra for the new year, giving flowers, making a gratitude list, paying someone a compliment, and (my favorite) leaving a note in an unexpected place. Also included on the site are Nice Downloads that include gratitude notes and nice signs to help readers spread the niceness.

Entries on the ON blog remind people that niceness counts, a reminder we all need as our society becomes increasingly self-focused and fragmented. Melissa agrees. “I believe our society forces us to live more selfishly than we should. Everything is goal driven. In order to achieve those goals, we need to be focused on our needs. But what about the needs of others?” Though these needs seem minor, kindness, caring, and niceness are essential to human life. Our actions impact others, and why not positively? ON calls to our attention that what we do counts, even in the tiniest of ways.

Though not overtly spiritual, ON echoes the call to love your neighbor and display the fruit of the spirit: kindness, patience, goodness, self-control. Being nice goes hand in hand with common decency and respect for others, whatever your religious beliefs. Melissa tries to limit any mention of religion on ON in order to keep it universal and applicable to all. The Dalai Lama has been quoted as saying, “My religion is kindness,” and for Melissa, “that sums it up.”

Reading back through the ON entries, it’s obvious Melissa isn’t the only one who is embracing niceness. ON has become more than just a blog – it’s a movement. In the past seven months, the number of hits to the ON blog has increased from about 50 visits daily to upwards of 400. People are catching the nice bug and jumping on board. And it thrills Melissa to receive emails that tell her that because of ON they did something nice. “To think that there are people out there who put Operation NICE into effect as they go through their day just blows my mind!” she says. “It’s exactly what I wanted to happen.”

So, what does the future hold for Melissa and ON? She isn’t sure yet. Perhaps she’ll end up with speaking engagements or holding workshops. Or maybe ON will turn into a nonprofit. All Melissa’s sure of is that ON isn’t going away any time soon. ON has changed Melissa’s life, giving her something meaningful and substantial to add to the world. She adds, “I feel like, for the first time, I’m making a difference.”

When she isn’t blogging about being nice, Melissa is busy designing. In addition to her graphic design work, she has a temporarily-on-hiatus craft shop called melissahead designs. Currently, she’s obsessed with Rock Band, Italian wedding soup, and lip gloss.