Clearing the air

Los Angeles: the city of angels, a false idol, a circle of smog. Irvine: quintessential suburbia, the safest city in America. Laguna Beach: a beautifully Mediterranean yet tightly packed coastal community that was featured on reality TV in a past life.

These images don’t necessarily summon any kind of escape with a clarity-seeking intent. They are not exactly epitomes of quiet, monastic living, nor of the natural sorts of havens I tend to crave.

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And yet, while visiting both places this past week, I found the kind of headspace on which I’ve been scrambling to get a grip.

Perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising. For one thing, the pockets of this area I chose to step into – Griffith Observatory, the Last Bookstore, my friends’ impossibly surfy apartment in Irvine – did hold the promise of stillness and creativity.

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For another, over the course of this year, I have been trying to believe that one can find space to breathe, to think, and to simply be just about anywhere. But it’s a hard thing to absorb at home, and especially at home in the city. Packed tight as it is, some of us tend to wiggle into roles that barely fit us, and then wonder why it is so hard to relax and be ourselves. No one ever told us that it was possible to seek out a different role without dropping everything and starting over. But truly, who can afford to drop everything in such a dramatic way?

There are certain parts of American culture that ring with the heaviness of mythology, and to me, this is one of them; that is, the idea that in order to become yourself, you must go west, or east, or elsewhere – get away from your past self, escape your old life.

There is some truth in this story. Experiencing other cultures, for example – even traveling to another, unexplored American region – adds such layers and depths to what we think we know. It does one more good than ill to have one’s frame of reference flipped. If I had enough money, I would fund a semester abroad for everyone I know.

But the need to be elsewhere, alone, to be free? The idea that we are all rugged individuals? That, I am increasingly convinced, is a myth, and an occasionally dangerous one.

That said, I am also more and more convinced that the reality is better than the myth.

By this, I mean that coming to learn the truth of oneself – who you are, who you were made to be – can happen at home, turning an environment of relative discomfort into something not unlike home.

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This is a hard lesson that I am still learning, and perhaps will never cease to learn. But there’s a richness there, and it eased this visit to a place I did once call home.

Orange County was a place where I had a challenging time finding peace. California, of all places, is supposed to be where you can try anything and be anyone. But inner pressures and hidden corridors within oneself – when they remain closed, sealed, and locked – make those possibilities seem impossibly distant. Even if they are actually within reach. Perhaps especially when they are within reach.

For example, I’ve known I was wired to be a writer for essentially my entire life. I’ve also known I’m interested in health, wellness, and food culture for quite awhile. There is no shortage of opportunity to pursue these on the West coast, but fear is an amazingly good roadblock.

One year later, not much has changed in Orange County, at least not visibly. And, granted, one week is not quite enough time to dig up anything meaningful.

But the main big change – that happened within, and it is a continuing process. The change was of my outlook, which is vastly different than before. This is partially because this visit was a break from my daily reality. Yet even in observing the uglier points of LA and OC – traffic, smog, homelessness, suburban sprawl, and corporate dominance – the beauty peeked through. It was not – is not – entirely lost.

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You open yourself up to it – to the beauty.

Back home in Virginia, nothing much is new: there are more holiday decorations sprinkled about, and it’s about 10 degrees colder, with a more intense wind chill. We are all a step closer to the unpromised maybes and hopes of a new year.

And what lingers within, in this moment, does not have to completely disappear, even as it fades. It is as true for a season of love and light as it is for an adventure away from home. There is the excitement of creating something new out of what once seemed drained and empty, per LA’s Grand Central Market.

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There is the emergence of the natural through the cracks in the pavement, as is happening slowly in Costa Mesa.

And there is the idea that, maybe, new life can exist where it was never thought possible. That maybe, by working within certain confines, you can come to find that there is more than one way to be your limitless self.

To me, that is the reality. I’ll take it over the myth any day.

Peace be with you

Peace be with you on a day when politics is the watchword. But even so, it is not necessarily a bad word. It’s on all of our minds; why is it on all of our minds? Perhaps because politics is about power. But more than that, and fortunately for us – and our well-being, and our sanity – it is about people.

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A wise woman recently reminded me how much a President of the United States cannot do. True: the people’s ability to elect a leader is important and revolutionary. Also true: an election in itself is no small thing to be dismissed. Truer still: the President does carry weight and possess power (that is, influence).

However, we live in a country that was founded upon certain principles, one being that absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely, no matter who holds it – people or President. Furthermore, we live in a time wherein a powerful work of art heralding this painstakingly constructed framework is popular and celebrated. (Yes, of course I mean Hamilton.) That is a reminder we are lucky to have.

What is interesting about Americans, then, is our proclivity for choice. Yet, interestingly enough, this seems to be on the backburner in this present climate. Nevertheless, in spite of environmental influences, in spite of the people around us, and in spite of whatever toxicity breeds on the Internet, we do have in our possession the ability to choose.

And in spite of what many would say, believe, or do, that ability does not end after a so-called historic election.

What if every election is historic? What then? Then, the effects would only be meaningful to the extent that we allowed.

By this, I mean a few things. First: none of us has to play the victim to a self-fulfilling prophecy. We all see negative patterns, and we predict their sore outcomes. But the pattern I see is that, when we predict these outcomes, they are shudderingly likely to occur.

Second: the opposite is true as well. If there is an ill that is eating at you, and that should be remedied – if the reality of hateful words and energy bothers you – if you are unhappy with, perhaps, certain systems –

– well. You are not alone. I’m there with you. I feel angry, anxious, entirely powerless.

But we are not alone. And in that unity, that powerlessness, bit by bit, will start to dissipate.

I say this in defiance of our concocted ideas about what power is or looks like. There is a different kind. It is a power that does not come from force, or volume, or occupying a seat in the tallest tower (literally or metaphorically). It does not come from having the time or energy to post grievances on Facebook.

No: the most effectual power comes from discernment, and wisdom. This power comes from giving up your ego in favor of your fellow man. We’ve seen it in the actions of those who change the way we think, see one other, and act. We know there is a different kind of influence; we’ve seen it exude from people – Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela – who have chosen to see and stand for the good within each of us.

Power, in short, comes from that which conquers fear: love.

None of us knows exactly what the future holds. But it is better that way. There is so much beyond each of our individual control, but those circumstances should have no bearing on whether we choose to act – whether we choose to change ourselves, in big movements and small words – to bring people to peace and to better the world around us.

I have no illusions that utopia is near. Nor do I have illusions that it would even look the same for everyone. Indeed: I hope it would not, as balance is beautiful.

But what I also hope for is a trend towards trying to understand each person who walks beside us in our lives, no matter who he voted for, no matter where she was born. We really do have the choice to listen and love. When we believe we don’t, that’s when fear comes out to play.

But when we know deep down how thoroughly we do, there is a flicker of light in the soul, an electric recognition of ourselves in others’ eyes, a hope that positive change is possible.

I have hope. I have hope that it can begin as soon as today.

Post edited slightly on November 18, 2016.

Moments

Sunlight, summer mornings, sunsets. Some things have to be savored.

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A bluebird flies low across the street, so bold. Someone at the coffee shop shoulders the heft of a crate before the boy working there drops it. The sun rises over the sea and you drift through the quiet, deep in a happy cocktail of serenity and awe.

Cliches exist for better or for worse, but let it not be said they have no raison d’être. In my case, during these dog days I have been inhaling-exhaling the truth that God is in the details.

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Every day has its trajectory. But the moments built into each one sprout up both gently and starkly: those are the studded light on the surface. Within the blur, the edges on leaves and the dappled sunlight and the gleam on the water’s edge seem sharper, or brighter, or more beautiful; everything slows down and comes into focus.

IMG_20160724_134623409What does it mean, though, to say that God is in the details?

To me, it is to believe in the power of His still small voice.

We look for signs – for loud sirens to draw us to the “right” place, or to some magic rock of stability. At least, this is my tendency. I see fog settling over the morning and wonder if it’s an omen, a warning to seek shelter from a something wicked that just may come. But in reality, it’s as simple as this: I am seeking a reason to worry or to be afraid. Maybe that is our human tendency: hard-wired to seek protection at any cost.

Today, while casually flipping through the lower-numbered radio stations, I landed on a short treatise – probably a PSA – on turning to Jesus during tough times.

“In the world we will have trouble. But He has overcome the world. Seeking the Lord makes those hardships – and there will be hardships – just a little easier to bear.”

A comfort? Of course not. My poor sweet monkey-mind immediately screeched out, “Oh, come on! So what’s going to happen to me now?” Me me me me me. It was all about me and my secure future. Where is my secure future? What ill shall befall us now?

But then my heart remembered: there are troubles in this world every day. Of course. They are there in ways big and small. What matters is whether or not the still small voice of truth, love, and a sound mind are acknowledged, or ignored.

Historically, I am not great at this acknowledgement. Historically, what charges me towards action is the emotional – the theatrical – the gigantic and bombastic. Historically, this seems to be a very normal human thing. Hamilton isn’t smashing all sorts of records and barriers for nothing, right? Didn’t reality singing shows take over America one fateful day in 2002?

Here’s the thing, though: the oak grows from a small acorn. These big, enormous triumphs all started as a small seed of hope.

(Where’s a good Totoro gif when you need one?)

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Summer is ending, but let us hold it in open hands as a series of quiet moments. This is so different from clinging to that sweeping, crashing wave of emotion from school-free days past. Those are gone from my life, but then again they still breathe into it sometimes, with the cool sigh of an evening breeze, with the electric pulse of an outdoor concert, with time spent drifting down the river or settling into a shared laugh.

Moments: as they are savored, they somehow grow bigger and riper with meaning. And maybe that’s the detail to remember.

The creative spirit

Or: write on, Psalmists.

About a month ago, I went to see The 1975 play in Charlottesville. They, while not of the mainstream-radio set Stateside (yet…), have cultivated an impressively dedicated following. I can’t help but think that it’s not only because of their copious output and obvious talent/hard work combo, but also because of their utter sincerity. In their performance, and in their lyrics, it’s impossible to ignore. To me that is something beautiful – something to be proud of.

Sincerity. Complete emotional honesty. It’s what so many of us seem to be craving lately.

It’s why I love The 1975 unabashedly. It’s also one of the many reasons why Julien Baker and her echoic power have drawn me in. The poet with a guitar that rings out like a harp, her simultaneous rejoice and complain – her sincere, raw music is a gift to this world.

Music. Stories. Sincerity. Crying out in verse, reaching out to others in melodies, letting one’s spirit be free as it reveals itself between the notes of a song or the lines of a page. These are spiritual acts.

But of course it is, you think. You might think, for example, of the Psalms, of the Song of Solomon – then of Paradise Lost – or of Emily Dickinson’s plaintive queries to the Almighty. My mind goes to a gorgeous book of poetry called Bucolics a friend gave to me: pastoral verses that invoke the relief of nature, that send the writer’s wonderings to the God he calls Boss. Serious, curious, sweet. It’s refreshing.

I think this idea was re-awoken in me, though, by a sermon I heard on generosity. (Not the kind you’re thinking of, probably. Bear with me here~)

What I mean is: generosity is a spiritual act, too. To give what you’ve been given back to others, or to the one who gave it, is to share the light that is love. It is a way of making the impossible suddenly so possible. Of course it’s true in a financial context, but it’s also true relationally, and definitely artistically.

Isn’t this one of the reasons why we create in the first place? Are not our painted, composed, concocted works offerings in themselves?

I am trying to tease out what this looks like in my own life. But I wonder what it could look like in yours. I wonder what it would be like to have more and more people turn to this form of offering and of connection.

So until these questions are answered, I’ll probably just have Julien Baker on repeat. She just casts that kind of spell.

Tapas for beginners

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When you can’t go to Barcelona for Father’s Day, this is the next best thing.

Inspired by a visit to a brand-new Mexican place in Charlottesville, The Bebedero, and especially the meandering, flamenco-style guitar music playing there, we wanted the meal for last week’s holiday to be a gift that honored everything good about relaxation. Something that hearkened to a culture known for siesta and abstract architecture and amor.

(Bear with me: I realize that Mexican and Spanish cultures are totally unique from one another, but the music led from point A to point B. And you can’t really argue with music.)

Vibe solidly in mind, some online research led me to the refreshing and beautiful blog Salt and Wind. If you want to armchair travel through gorgeous pictures of food, recipes inspired by stories, and globally-minded articles, my goodness but this is the place to go.

Using a recipe of theirs, as well as a few from ever-faithful Saveur, this first venture into tapas was an enthusiastically received success. Which may or may not have been due to the whole adult-children-serving-and-honoring-their-parents thing, but even if it was, just couple that with some really savory wine sauce and crispy prosciutto and you’ll understand. Results may vary, but should equal something close to a moment’s happiness.

The recipes were as follows:

Gazpacho andaluz

Albóndigas en salsa

Crispy black lentils with asparagus, Jamon Serrano, and crème fraiche mustard sauce (not the sexiest name, but make it, and I promise the sauce will change your tune)

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Morals to this story:

Take simple ingredients and put love into their preparation.

Share your creativity: that’s a real gift.

And never say no to juicy, home-grown tomatoes when you find them. Otherwise you will be missing out on a very fine sandwich. And that is just a crime.

(At least, that’s what my father would say.)

Zen in the city

It’s been awhile, but not without good reason. I.e., sometimes – most times – you’ve got to do your growing away from the world of Interweb. Over the past few months, I’ve started full-time work, began exploring the potential for a(/another) new career path, gone to a concert, planned a vacation, and tried, countless times, to sleep in this noisy humidity. Did I mention ruing the day I left California?

Richmond’s not bad. I’m being unfair/mostly kidding. But my favorite places tend to be the quieter ones. The North Shore of O’ahu, for the most out-there example: I absolutely adore the country towns there. Not everything about them, but the beating heart of the entire area. It is a small, but sufficient haven; a home that is quiet, but calming.

Richmond, as I said, is not bad, and it’s not the Big City, but it is also not the country, and by no means is it quiet (she wrote, waiting for the next siren to whistle by).

There’s a beauty to this cacophony, of course. Music pouring from car windows and balconies; dogs barking; the racetrack abuzz – it’s a bizarre symphony of sorts, but it is uniquely ours. And it’s exciting that there is so much possibility living here.

But then there are moments when the noise mellows out, and if one pays attention, there are pockets of serenity to be found. And this individual revels in such spaces.

(That, or one could live with jaw clenched ad infinitum. It’s up to the individual, I suppose.)

I’m spoiled to have to take just a few steps to get to this first destination: the VMFA Sculpture Garden.

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Whoever designed this area deserves a hug. It remains gentle and traps no chatter even when people are about, not unlike a park or bigger green space. That joyful echo of laughter and footsteps… swoon.

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I am writing, in fact, from this very location, cool blissful breeze rustling the grasses, leaves, flowers, edges of water. With the art just in sight, it’s soothing. Wouldn’t miss it.

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You can’t talk about peaceful places without mentioning the trails at Dogwood Dell and the Pumphouse ParkSomehow I always end up drawn back here, to the grassy expanse by the amphitheater and the short yet winding trails. You could lose hours wandering here.

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ah.. cliched, but truly a sight for sore eyes

Then, on a more spiritual level, there’s Richmond Hill: a longtime spiritual haven and monastic spot for those committed to praying over the city.

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I can think of no better place than this. High in Church Hill, its sweeping views of the streets, buildings, and river below keep it utterly engaged with Richmond’s heart. And its garden (notice a trend, eh?) is a relaxing place to sit, read, or pray.

Rest is important. Real rest is hard to find space for. There are so many demands on our time, energy, headspace. And that’s part of why environment matters: it’s an all-natural way of compartmentalizing between busyness and rest. There’s a reason we have happy hour and pau hana; there’s a reason we have a day of rest between workweeks. Because sometimes, just one step is all it takes to move you from stress-laden to chill.

I personally tend to have a hard time taking that first step. But these places are such an encouragement. How about you – where can you find such encouragement in the space around you?

How to get free: step one is to run

I run quite a lot. Not to an ultramarathon extent, or, frankly, even a marathon one, but maybe a little more than what’s considered average. It’s the path I’ve chosen for over 12 years now; while there’s no real physical reason to have kept with it this long, it’s proven to be mentally and emotionally stabilizing, so there it stays, a mainstay of my days. Give me a quiet morning, a riverside trail, and a solid pair of trainers, and I’m at peace for the rest of the day. Or at least a few hours, anyway.

Over and over again, this is about overcoming inertia. Not just of my physical self, but of my mental and emotional selves, too. It takes trying (and/or trials) to get something new out of running, and likewise, out of life. We alone contain our brightest ideals and shadowiest fears, and the work of overcoming inertia is that of choice. Do I choose to believe in the bleakness, or in the brightness? Do I choose balance? What will it be today?

Running through the woods is beneficial, yes, but only when I choose to (a) actually do it and (b) put my heart (and lungs) into it. Or, as some say, “embrace the pain.” What I mean is, even though it’s a habit, sometimes it’s still a hard choice to make. But it’s rare that I regret choosing it.

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Sometimes that pain-resisting instinct – the one that makes decisions difficult – is part of my running and regular life at the same time.

For example: have you ever used physical pain to try and numb the emotional kind? I have, more times than I can count. The worst time was a sunny spring day in Southern California – mid-morning, dusty, and hot. Deciding to go far and fast enough to escape seemed helpful at mile one, but by mile four or five, there was a sinking realization that I wasn’t getting anywhere good. Just angrier, thirstier, and more confused.

It’s too easy to forget that pain can have purpose, and so much of life can be redeemed from its dark corners. Avoidance, resistance – can there truly be resilience when those two lead the way?

No, but a hard look at oneself – embracing that pain – can change everything.

Sometimes when you face the hard things, you come out on top.  There was another run on the North Shore of O’ahu, where I was living at my hanai aunt’s and dogsitting for the summer, on a gut-wrenching trail frequented by those who want to reward their physical efforts with a gorgeous sweeping view.

The day before I took on this steep switchback had been a tough one, workout-wise, and my legs were zapped. Yet somehow it seemed right, on this particular day, to get submerged in the thick greenery, choke down just one more bite of challenge.

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It was a rainy morning – not a rarity here, but still captivating in a gentle way. Permissive, not foreboding. It said, “Go ahead. It’s okay to feel this. This harsh uncertain feeling. It will be useful to you.” The grade was steep and the rocks were slippery, but the end of the climb did not disappoint. Gasping for air, already tired after three miles straight up, I looked across the expanse, to the ocean and the trees and the island rolling out in its majesty.

The challenge was redeemed. As they always are, even though it’s hard to see in the thick of it.

I like to think that’s what is so compelling about the natural world, even in a time when we live in houses and apartments and, generally, places with walls and roofs. Our spirits – they belong to the forests, the oceans, the rivers, and we can see ourselves more clearly there. Through the refracted light of the clerestory and canopy. A long trail jaunt, instead of a means of running away, becomes one of redemption.

Here are some of the places I find that respite in the city:

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  • Pony Pasture (pictured above), a beautiful quiet place by the James.
  • Buttermilk Trail, for when you want to disappear for a few hours and be absorbed in the natural world. The ups and downs and obstacles make for a better adventure than I ever dreamed I’d find here.
  • Monument Avenue, aka the street where we live. Can’t get better cushioning than eight miles of straight grass.

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  • Bryan Park (pictured above), not for mileage but for peace. This is a gem.
  • Byrd Park, a quick jaunt south on Boulevard from us. Makes me feel like I’m in a bigger city, and the fitness loop is pretty fun!

And for you globetrotters, some faraway faves mentioned in this post:

I’ll drink to that: on consumption, Port wine, and brownies

In the wake of holiday revelry, the impendingness of Mardi Gras, and some really stellar gifted Port (thanks Tara!), drinks and drinking have been on my brain. More specifically, the American relationship with alcohol – how historically vexed and fascinating it has been.

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wine: for drinking, for eating, for staring out windows in winter

From Big Beer to craft breweries, from local to well-sourced to biodynamic wines, this is definitely an area and industry always in flux. An interesting recent phenomenon is the fact that, during the recession, it was one of the few markets that stayed strong – and grew. For someone who has spent the last few years in and out of regular work, this is not hard to understand. When finances are tight, and you have to be extremely choosy about indulgences, a bottle of wine is one that you can share with a few friends any old time.

But this brings me back to the fraught relationship with alcohol we Americans have tended towards – that is, from a collective perspective, as I do know many people who have healthy relationships with what they drink. It strikes me as similar to our odd national eating disorder, wherein we’re obsessed with health and/or eating, which seems to make us unhealthier. So my question is: is this trend is a “bad” thing? Or even something to joke about being “bad”? That seems to be such a Puritanical relic sometimes, the word “bad,” but I’m curious: are we drinking more and harder during tough times, or are we truly seeking togetherness because work is lacking, and we suddenly have realized that true community is the most important thing?

Alcohol consumption gets to be so different in other countries: the standards, for one, are unique. So are the amounts consumed. And there doesn’t seem to be so much baggage. I’ve not yet got to the bottom of why (has anyone? if you have, let me know). But since, here, we’ve got to reckon with the ghosts of addiction and binges, I suppose that means that, if this is the indulgence you hang onto, perhaps it’s wise to ask yourself why. Just in case. Just like with anything.

That’s what I’ve been trying to do, still being among the jobless, and for me – as for many – it does swing back around to togetherness. And to flavor, of course.

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I have never been a big drinker in terms of volume (too much of a lightweight, alas), but the taste aspect fascinates me after having worked closely with wine and food. The variations are endless; the pairings, innovative and fun. One of my favorite jobs was at a Charlottesville winery with rustically inspired energy, where I first was privy to adventurous and unique wine and food pairings.

(It was also the first place I ever had olives. A life without olives??)

So, disappointingly, I can’t offer any new information* on wine and beer, although I do love the supposed heart-health benefits. That’s something I’ll go ahead and trust.

But I’m up for achieving harmony in all things, especially when it comes to food and drink, so let’s add to the love with a recipe for port wine brownies. To be enjoyed with or without port, depending on your preference (and family history, and financial state). Salute!

Port brownies with dried cherries

adapted from Curly Girl Kitchen’s recipe

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ingredients:

  • 1/4 c dried cherries
  • 3 tbsp Port
  • 2 oz bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, chopped (baking bar or chunks; regular chocolate chips are too finicky)
  • 2 tbsp unsalted butter
  • 2 tbsp cocoa powder
  • 1 egg
  • 1/3 c sugar
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract or vanilla bean paste
  • 1/2 c all-purpose flour
  • pinch salt

(note: Curly Girl includes a ganache; I did not, but check the link if you want to try it)

Preheat oven to 350F. Grease a small baking dish (5×5 or 6×6) with nonstick spray or butter.

On the stove in a small pan, heat the Port with the dried cherries mixed in.  Bring to a simmer, then immediately remove from heat, cover, and let sit for 10 minutes.

While the cherries are set aside, in a double boiler over medium heat, combine the chopped chocolate and butter, stirring the chocolate and butter as they melt. (Alternatively you can do this step in the microwave, combining the 2 ingredients in a bowl and stirring every 15 seconds or so.)

When finished, take the cherries-and-Port mixture, and puree in a food processor, or mash in a small bowl.

Then, in a medium-sized mixing bowl, whisk or beat the Port mixture, melted chocolate and butter, cocoa powder, egg, sugar, and vanilla, until smooth and combined.  Add the salt and flour, stirring in with a spoon or rubber spatula, scraping the sides all the while.

Spread your batter into the prepared pan. Bake for 20-25 minutes or until the center is set. (Check occasionally since every oven is different.)

Let the brownies cool for about 30 minutes before cutting into them.

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so fudgy. so perfect

Recipe yields a small batch of 8-10 brownies; easily doubles to fit a regular 9×13 pan!

*For further thoughts on this topic, I love this article from Forbes. Highly recommended read! > Are You Drinking Too Much? The Myth of Moderation

On seasons and soup

They say that for everything, there is a season. During this particular one, I’ve got a strange ongoing challenge that I don’t get to wield any control over. It’s humbling, too, because it’s something I’ve poked fun at many times, or labeled “boring” (because usually it is). This topic is – what else? – weather. Weather and seasons.

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Before I left the Left Coast, a friend commented that it was too bad I was leaving when I was. It was late October. I went blank for a moment, a little confused. “Why?” I asked. “Were you planning something fun that I’ll miss?” “No,” she said. “Just because it’s going to be so cold.”

Cold. The real four-letter word.

I was a little dismissive of that, at first, since, la-de-da, there’s more to life than weather. Like Sleater-Kinney’s glorious “No Cities to Love” says, “it’s not the cities, it’s the people we love.” I.e. not the weather, because weather is just weather. It’s different everywhere, sure, but it’s still the last-resort cocktail party topic of yore. Everywhere I’ve ever been in the U.S., they say that if you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes. Everywhere. (Except California, come to think of it.)

So: weather is weather. That’s true enough. And yet here I am, feeling weird that I remain unadjusted to the admittedly mild temps. Each evening I realize that there was a certain lack of shivering I came to take for granted in Orange County. Y’all have it good there – really good. Now, a fifty-degree day gives me goosebumps; it’s, dare I say, borderline embarrassing. It feels like a huge weakness, actually – say, if we had some kind of apocalypse and lost all internal heating or sources of flame.

(Not that we turn the heat on here, so maybe it’d actually be okay. Who knows.)

I find this interesting not in a “typical-girl-is-always-cold” way, because that is truly boring, but in a seasonal way. That is, as it turns out, I did miss the seasons of the Mid-Atlantic – the autumn reds and golds and the barren winters and the whipping breezes of spring. SoCal has its own versions of seasons, sure (June gloom, anyone?). But it’s fair to say that it’s not quite the same. Which can be an excellent thing for those who live there (beach in November!).

That said, when you give up seasonal variation, you also give up – however temporarily – a certain adaptability. You can prepare with layers. You can adopt a never-say-die mindset. But other than that, you just gotta hold out hope that one day, it will return and you will be tough again, no longer a sunshiny marshmallow subject to the whims of the Pacific, but a stone-cold badass Katniss Everdeen in the face of the harshest of winters.

In the meantime, during this season (see what I did there?), what else can you do to stave off the chill?

Taking the meat from the squash

The answer, of course, is make soup. And not just any soup: one that is an ode to the West Coast and a blogger I find endlessly inspiring. This is an adapted version of a butternut squash soup from this lovely Orangette post – fitting, too, since her writing here is so beautifully dedicated to San Francisco and Seattle.

My changes were slight: since I was out of apple cider, I omitted it and upped the stock content, then added coconut milk towards the end of the simmering process. The result was a thick, almost-bisque with a whipped consistency and beautiful harmony of spices.

Apple & butternut squash soup

adapted from Orangette

IMG_6566

ingredients:

¼ cup olive oil
one 1.5-lb butternut squash, peeled, seeded & cut into 2-inch cubes
two small apples (I used Gala as in the original recipe), peeled, cored, & cut into 1-inch cubes
one medium onion, chopped
½ tsp each of cardamom, curry powder, and ginger
3 or 4 cups vegetable stock (can also use chicken, per the original)
½ cup coconut milk
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Warm the olive oil in a large stockpot over medium heat. Add the squash, apples, and onion and stir to cover with oil.

Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions soften and become translucent. Then, stir in the spices, maybe adding a pinch of salt and pepper. Continue to cook until the onion’s edges are browned and the squash has started to soften.

Add the stock. Bring the mixture to a simmer, then lower the temperature. Continue to simmer – uncovered or partially covered – for 25 to 35 minutes, so the liquid reduces. Add half of the coconut milk at the end of the reduction time.

Remove the soup from heat and gradually – two batches, probably – add to a food processor or blender. (Keep your batches small so to avoid a hot explosion.) Puree the mixture until it is smooth and silky, without chunks. It should be more of a whipped cream texture than an applesauce one.

Return the soup to the stockpot and add the rest of the coconut milk as you warm it back up. Add salt and pepper to taste. Serve immediately (and with roasted squash seeds if you can!).

serves 3-4

Photo credit in this post goes to my lovely sister Rachel!

Eastward expansion*, part 2

*My filmmaking friend (and fellow East coaster) Brittany gave me this phrase, in case you’re wondering. She a forward-thinking, fun, and talented producer/photographer/videographer who is also kick-ass at life and at being a friend. I do not exaggerate when I say that I would not have survived California without her.

Today, she came to mind because I am thinking about the ways we need each other, and especially how being honest about that need makes it possible to experience what may have seemed very not-possible.

This part of the story is a little longer, but only because I don’t know how I could extricate one part from the rest. But I do know that Rogerson Service came first.

idaho h2o
Rogerson is also apparently home to the second best water in the country. Coming from Cali, ya, I’d say it was pretty righteous

That place is the best dang gas station in the United States (probably). But, I imagine that if you’re reading, you’re wondering what a service station/café/convenience store has to do with anything. That’s not unlike what I wondered when we stopped there to look for firewood on our way to Lud Drexler Park.

It turned out to be more relevant than relevant – a piece of Magic Valley magic, perhaps? – as it was where an amazing, hardworking woman named Terri hooked us up with two nights’ worth of logs, no charge, courtesy of her friend who had just chopped it that day. Magic, indeed. Not sure I’ve ever slept as well as I did that night.

Everything took a turn after that encounter. For one thing, since our campsite was a different one than I’d initially planned, we were slightly ahead of schedule. Eastern Montana was the intended stop, for no real reason other than the romanticization of Montana. So why not, instead, pass through part of Montana on the way to Yellowstone?

yellowstone pines

yellowstone stream
cleansing in every sense

Why not? It’s only the most unparalleled preservation of beauty in the U.S.

It was rivaled, though, by Granite Pass. As we continued on to Sheridan, our route included this tricky, treacherous path through the Bighorn Mountains, and layers of ancient (truly, beyond ancient) sedimentary rock. It was terrifying, steep as the grades were, but fascinating and fun to learn about the different ages of the rocks that surrounded us. I guess, technically, most of the rock out there is prehistoric, but every section of it was marked here. Plus, how many areas can claim to be the home of certain dinosaur fossils? That alone was worth the danger. We might have missed out on a real marvel, otherwise.

granite pass
Photo courtesy of another blogger at Lincoln Highway Ride (http://www.lincolnhighwayride.com) because my hands were gripping the steering wheel too tight to snap one of my own

I read after getting back that the Bighorn Mountains are considered sacred to the Cheyenne. It’s easy to see why.

We skipped camping that night in favor of knowing where exactly we were. Even that had its unexpected pleasures, albeit smaller in scale. Java Moon was the main one: should you find yourself in Sheridan, this place and its DIY oatmeal are a must. And maybe finding yourself in Sheridan is a good idea in itself – we loved what we saw of the small town. It seemed like a remnant of a West that maybe only exists in our collective memory.

Or maybe it’s real, and vibrant, and filled with the most unexpected of people and places. That’s what will stick with me, anyway.

Places in this post: