Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is darkness, let me sow light.
Where there is sorrow, joy.
Grant that I should never seek
so much to be consoled as to console.
I realize that I probably need to hold up my end of the bargain and all. A lot of the time, I feel like I have no idea how to do this.
But the English word “essay” comes from the French infinitive “essayer,” which means “to try.”
So I will try to tell you about the time I was in Nice and I drank black tea sweetened by a crystalline cube that seemed like it had been wrapped in crinkle-gossamer wax paper by fairy hands. The thing was almost too beautiful to unfold.
Before that, sugar came from a bowl or a packet. And I drank a lot of tea with cream and sugar. But I could have been drinking tea with cream and sucre. Who knew?
Dear Mr. Nadeau:
As long as there is one upright man, as long as there is one compassionate woman, the contagion may spread and the scene is not desolate. Hope is the thing that is left to us, in a bad time. I shall get up Sunday morning and wind the clock, as a contribution to order and steadfastness.
Sailors have an expression about the weather: they say, the weather is a great bluffer. I guess the same is true of our human society — things can look dark, then a break shows in the clouds, and all is changed, sometimes rather suddenly. It is quite obvious that the human race has made a queer mess of life on this planet. But as a people we probably harbor seeds of goodness that have lain for a long time waiting to sprout when the conditions are right. Man’s curiosity, his relentlessness, his inventiveness, his ingenuity have led him into deep trouble. We can only hope that these same traits will enable him to claw his way out.
Hang on to your hat. Hang on to your hope. And wind the clock, for tomorrow is another day.
E. B. White
The paper was rose-colored, I think.
Or maybe it was cyan, but I don’t know for sure, because at the time my body and soul were processing a new definition of the color blue.
O Divine Master,
Grant that I may always remember
the first time I saw the Mediterranean.
E.B. White would have known what to write about the cherry tree. I am certain of that.
On the morning of the tree’s removal, I awoke with a start. All of a sudden, we only had an hour left together.
If I could bridge the gap between me and the tree—between the personal and the universal, the way E.B. did with such grace—I guess I would say:
The tree was out of control. It sprawled. It drew complaints from the neighbors. “We never thought it would get that big,” my landlords said. In March, its blossoms reached for sun in all directions, taking what they could get. (It lived in Seattle, after all.) Eventually, the petals dropped, like doilies whisked from a café table, across the backyard property line.
Its blossoms pressed into my window, the one above my writing desk. “Open, open, open,” they said, like the woman in that Mervyn’s commercial from the early 90s that somehow continues to occupy precious real estate in my brain. I should have pruned the thing back. But then I thought: To tame the very thing asking you to be wilder?
Also, yardwork is not fun and I am lazy.
The above feels somewhat forced. Except for the laziness part.
The truth is I am highly allergic to most trees, although I am not sure about cherry trees. The truth is I wish I had applied the discipline to wake early like Mary Oliver and observe the tree as the seasons slid by. The truth is I wish I was in love enough with the world to not even need said discipline. The truth is keeping a tiny handheld computerized funhouse on my bedside table is a terrible idea.
Whatever the reason, I knew the tree was a she. And I knew I could not be home when she fell. I took some photos of her last great cacophony of leaves. Then I bought myself an iced coffee and went for a walk. The arborist’s work was swift.
It comforts me to know that even E.B White seems to have had a midlife crisis. In 1938, he left his job at The New Yorker and moved from New York City to a salt water farm in North Brooklin, Maine. His wife Katherine agreed to go, despite the fact that it would interrupt her tenure as one of the most influential editors in America. She made an agreement with The New Yorker to do editing through the mail. E.B. had no clear plan for making a living in Maine. But before leaving New York, he agreed to write monthly essays about rural life for Harper’s.
Here’s a picture of the salt water farm. Reader, I saw it!
And Jules and I stayed at the nearby Blue Hill Inn and I sat near the front window of the carriage house and ate yogurt and Maine blueberries and wrote in my journal!
And I drank coffee in the lobby of the Blue Hill Inn, where E.B. White used to go for dinner after Katherine passed away. I sat to the left of the fireplace. I squinted and furrowed my brow and waited for the essence of E.B. to materialize via Star Trek transporter beam.
“He sat on the other side,” the innkeeper said. I moved to the right of the fireplace.
Once in everyone’s life there is apt to be a period when he is fully awake, instead of half asleep. I think of those five years in Maine as the time when this happened to me. Confronted by new challenges, surrounded by new acquaintances—including the characters in the barnyard, who were later to reappear in Charlotte’s Web—I was suddenly seeing, feeling, and listening as a child sees, feels, and listens. It was one of those rare interludes that can never be repeated, a time of enchantment. I am fortunate indeed to have had the chance to get some of it down on paper.
—E. B. White, “Salt Water Farm,” in One Man’s Meat
My grandfather was born at Fort Williams, which is south of Portland, Maine and south of North Brooklin, Maine yet north of Brooklyn, New York. The Fort was near the lighthouse on Cape Elizabeth.
My grandfather helped raise four children and served in two wars. He was in his 101st year when he passed away a few months ago. He had eaten cottage cheese with canned fruit for lunch every day for the vast majority of those years.
My grandfather also loved sweets. Especially thick chocolate shakes. (My dad says if the straw doesn’t stand up on its own in the middle, it’s not thick shake.) I remember when Grandpa sent me on the train to Grand Central with a box of fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies and a glimmer in his eye, as if to say he knew I would eat all of them myself and it could be our little secret.
One Man’s Meat is, as the title suggests, a personal record. It is a collection of essays which I wrote from a salt water farm in Maine while engaged in trivial, peaceable pursuits, knowing all the time that the world hadn’t arranged any true peace or granted anyone the privilege of indulging himself for long in trivialities. Although such a record is likely to seem incongruous, I see no harm in preserving it, the more so since I have begun to receive letters from soldiers overseas assuring me that there is a positive value to them in the memory of peace and of home.
—From the Introduction to One Man’s Meat
Do you remember the Simpsons episode where Marge and Lisa and Bart start a food blog, and Lisa shows Homer a video of a chef making pine needle sorbet, and Homer says,
“Pine needle sorbet? Pine needle sorbet?! My kids do NOT eat sorbet. They eat sherbet, and they pronounce it sherbert, and they wish it was ice cream!”
I remember it. Because it’s hilarious, but also because it reminds me of someone I love. It sounds familiar.
The tree had blossoms, not needles. She was familiar, too.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow woke before dawn. The wind blew ocean mist clear through to his bones. He set out to walk. I was nearly 9 miles from his house in Portland to the lighthouse at Cape Elizabeth. 9 miles one way, people. And he walked. I submit that this was because there was no better place for him to witness the morning sun cross from sea to land.
I am standing on Cape Elizabeth where Longfellow walked and I am HAVING A MOMENT and I am planning to relocate my writing desk to the Portland Head Light and exist on a diet of poems and salt air.
Aaaaaaand the moment has passed! BAhahahahahaha! Can we go eat now?
Some people claim that Portland, Maine has the highest or second highest number of restaurants per capita in the U.S. behind San Francisco. In keeping with Maine’s independent spirit, some people disagree. And some other people have diligently researched the facts and have provided the data to support their position. (My fellow Americans: Remember when we used to have lively, civil, reality-based debates like this?)
Quantity of food in Portland notwithstanding, you will get no argument from me re: its quality. Exhibit A: Olive oil droplets swaddled in the duvet of pizza pictured above, consumed at (the aptly named) Slab Sicilian Street Food.
Jules and I couldn’t have asked for better food guides than the front desk staff at the Press Hotel, housed in the former offices and printing plant of the Portland Press Herald, poised on the edge of the Old Port’s cobblestones. They recommended two restaurants that were not only veggie-friendly, but also organic, hyper-locally sourced, and impeccably fresh.
(When I tell people I am a vegetarian, and they assume that I am a healthy, virtuous one, it delights me beyond measure. HOW LITTLE YE KNOW OF THE CHEESE BALL VAT I KEEP AT HOME.)
Press Recommendation #1: Flatbread Company, a wood-fired pizza joint with an airy vibe and a view of the harbor. Watch that tender crust blister and sputter, watch the fishing boats glide by. The brownie that anchors your dessert will be wood-fired, too. (It’s under there somewhere, I promise.)
Flatbread is a small chain that has built pizza ovens as far away as Whistler and Maui, but you’d never know it from the Maine-centric ingredients at the Portland location. A simple salad garnished with Maine sea kelp basically cancels out the brownie. A tall glass of the house lemonade, served hot, honors the seaside chill. The thing could easily kickstart a 10-day juice cleanse!
Or you could sip it slowly and let it sooth the vocal cords you roughed up while singing your heart out to the Trey Songz version of “Life on Mars?” on the drive from Acadia National Park. And by you, I mean me.
Flaky roti + hearty peanut curry + (vegan chocolate torte )(fresh orange-segment lollipops) = straight-up delicious virtue at Green Elephant, Hotel Press Recommendation #2.
We visited Portland in late April at the tail end of the off season. It was quiet—at times a bit too quiet—but then again, it was nice to be able to explore sans crowds. In this part of Maine, even Subway serves a lobster roll, and frozen confections clamor for tourist attention. On Fore Street in the Old Port, witness the standoff between Gorgeous Gelato and Gelato Fiasco. On the way to Acadia, a giant, friendly lobster begs the question: “Why stop at an ice cream shop when you can begin your ice cream retreat?
Luckily, there’s still plenty of real estate left for creative cuisine. Back at Slab, Jules and I discovered a new kind of veggie sandwich: Pan et panelle, popular in Palermo, yet possible in Portland. It’s a beer battered, deep fried chickpea-cauliflower fritter, slathered in ricotta and served on a sesame-encrusted roll, with plenty of parsley, red onion, and a big old squeeze of lemon. For dessert, Slab’s “napolean creampile” changes its flavor profile monthly but, I suspect, always lives up to its name.
Mad-scientist mixology abounds at the Bar at Tempo Dulu, located in the Danforth Inn, a Federal-style mansion built in 1823 that somehow manages to pull off a interior filled with electronic music, purple light, and clear acrylic chairs. From their web site: “Expect smoke and fire or foam made by a fish tank pump. Why serve [a cocktail] in a glass when you can serve it on a plate?” Why indeed.
Jules’s drink came with a heaping side of smoke, but it dissipated before I could take a photo. I may have been under the influence of a Mai Tai at the time.
Breakfast in Portland keeps the flavor combinations crazy. At The Holy Donut, choices range from bacon cheddar to toasted coconut to chai, and the dough is made with Maine potatoes. Notes: Texture: Too cake-like for my taste. Frosting: A bit cloying. But many a Mainer would beg to differ, which delights me. And I do love how much the hot-pink pomegranate varietal resembles Homer Simpson’s ideal donut, sans sprinkles.
There’s even a vegetarian tasting menu in town, presented at Evo Kitchen & Bar, where the service is as warm and comforting as the pitas, and the parade of mezze seems to stretch all the way down Fore Street.
Muhammara + cloud-upon-your-tongue hummus + tabbouleh + that pita + so, so much of that pita + falafel + grape leaves in aromatic sauce + a clever little fried artichoke, outer leaves groomed, masquerading as leg of lamb + dessert of tahini and Greek yogurt and puffed pine nuts + um, everything else you ate today in Portland =
Do you really want to know? Then head back to the fitness center at the Press Hotel, where you can weigh yourself—lying down, if you like—on a vintage scale that’s embedded in the floor. Printers once used it to weigh bulk reams of paper. Don’t worry. This will be only slightly unsettling.
If you want to start walking it off, fair winds will assist.
This post is more about Beethoven and less about food. As advance compensation for veering somewhat off topic, here is a photo of Jules hugging a metric ton of cheese balls that he won in a raffle on his birthday.
I will point out that his birthday was in January, and the vat remains unopened. It’s almost as if the idea of owning a metric ton of cheese balls is enough.
O.K. so for some reason, I’ve been watching a lot of political news lately. I guess politics are on everybody’s mind, and I want to be able to talk to everybody. And I noticed that I’ve been listening to a lot of Beethoven lately, too. As a sort of a antidote. Or a sort of prayer. Or both.
On the day of the bombing in Belgium, Symphony No. 9 was on repeat. Naturally.
This reminds me that I have been meaning to write about a concert I attended more than a year ago.
MORE THAN A YEAR AGO:
I am listening to the first of Beethoven’s “Razumovsky” quartets while seated in the sanctuary of a stone church that looks like it was transplanted from the English countryside to Magnolia Bluff. Outside, parishioners display the results of a community art project that responds to this question: When have you felt the presence of God in your life?
When my mother died. When a stranger returned my wallet. When we ran for our lives to a foreign country with our hearts in our throats and our eyes fixed on some faint, flickering star.
I am distracted by the reverberating snores of a man who fell asleep instantaneously when the concert began. He awakens briefly between movements, then slumbers again. In the first pew, a little girl scampers back and forth. Her shoes shed a trail of silver glitter. Her mother is sitting in front of me. The mother waves her hand in the air, conductor of this peculiar, squirmy young instrument, gesturing for the child to rest. The child misses this cue.
From The Guardian:
Beethoven’s three “Razumovsky” string quartets left both their first performers and the public shocked and suspicious. The violinist Ignaz Schuppanzigh, whose quartet premiered the Opus 59 works, complained they were unreasonably difficult. After playing the opening solo from the second movement of the first of the three quartets, cellist Bernhard Romberg threw his music to the ground and stamped on it … Meanwhile, the violinist Felix Radicati is said to have complained these were “not music.”
“They are not for you, but for a later age,” Beethoven told his critics.
The cellist—a friend of mine—is playing one of the most feverishly complicated runs I have ever heard. Earlier she told me about this quartet’s notorious difficulty. The parts are so wholly intertwined that one wrong note from the cello sends the viola into a tailspin, and vice versa. It’s enough to make a classically trained string player go punk.
“They are not for you, but for a later age,” Beethoven told his critics.
I know this stuff moves us humans forward like a crescendo. Maybe the longest, slowest crescendo ever, but a crescendo nonetheless.
And yet part of me cannot help thinking: Well now, Ludwig. Wasn’t that just SPLENDID for the LATER AGE.
At the post-concert reception, I eat far too many miniature chocolate eclairs. I think they might have come from the frozen section at Trader Joe’s. They have not thawed completely and are still a little bit frosty on the bottom. They numb my fingers. I consider holding one to my brow.
Related: If you are in Seattle, please go see Stupid F’ing Bird, which is at the Act Theatre through May 8. I saw it last night. It’s zany and sad and hilarious, and it deeply honors our struggle with life’s unreasonableness. Funny enough, it is also full of food references.
On my birthday, by the light of a candle that stood knee-deep and proud in a slab of peanut-butter-chocolate confection, I said to Jules,
“Wow. So 35. That’s, like, halfway to 40.”
He then reminded me that 35 is halfway to 70.
(1) CURSE ENGINEERS AND THEIR LIGHTNING-QUICK MENTAL MATH. You know what I meant, right? 35 is halfway between 30 and 40!
(2) Last week I dreamed of a book* on a pedestal in a bright white room. I peered inside the book, gasped, smiled, and slammed it shut. Then I ran, but I had a feeling I would be back.
(3) Despite considerable thought devoted to the subject, I still wonder if, despite my 35 years of Earth experience, I am responsible enough to create suitable living conditions for more than a Welsh corgi. I am relieved that I am not the only person who feels this way.
(4) I remind myself that thinking other people have their acts together is a trap. I feel like someone needs to reinforce this concept for me on a daily basis. Maybe in the form of a smartphone app featuring Admiral Ackbar?
The candle smoke hung thick in the air, in the dark. It curled toward my forehead, then dissipated.
Otherwise the day passed much like any other.
In September, during summer’s last gasp, a writer friend invited Jules and me to eat dinner in total darkness at the Seattle Blind Café.
We met in a candlelit foyer at Nalanda West—a place where, about a year earlier, I’d quit a basic meditation class because my feet kept falling asleep and I because I could not stop thinking about meditating while meditating. I was thus ever more determined to be UBER PRESENT AND MINDFUL during dinner. I directed my focus to sliding a plump strawberry off a fruit skewer without dropping it on the floor. Someone explained the timeline for the evening. There would be dinner, music, and stories from the blind individuals helping run the event.
We diners lined up single file, right hand on right shoulder of the person ahead, in a sort of Conga Line Into The Void.
The dining room was legit dark. Every window and door crevice had been blocked, every electronic device dutifully tucked away. One of the blind volunteers who led us into the room took my hand and set it on the back of a chair. “You’ll be sitting here,” he said. Later he told us his process for navigating a new city by bus every few weeks. Remarkable.
My hands were instantly all thumbs. I extended them in front of me. I discovered that the staff had taken pity on us and put our water in plastic bottles. There was a bread basket to be passed, olive oil dipping to be navigated, conversations to be started with the disembodied voices an arm’s length away.
At this point I would love to be able to say that the darkness increased my senses of taste and smell. But really, it just made me nervous. On the upside, no one knew how much bread I was taking from the basket, so I was able to soothe myself with more carbs than would ever have been socially acceptable in the light.
The food was vegan small bites.** Save for dessert, it had all been plated before we sat down. Some people started eating with their hands, licking avocado mousse from their fingers. This made me more nervous. More bread. More bread.
“Oh, there’s a fork at the top of the plate!” came the voice of Disembodied Jules.
Thank heavens, I thought. I grabbed the utensil, and yet I still couldn’t navigate my meal. I could barely get my food from plate to mouth. Everyone else seemed to have mastered this, and everyone else had moved on to discussing flavors and textures. Did you try the Brussels sprouts? That avocado mousse has a kick to it. And that ginger glaze on the carrots!***
Approximately 40 minutes later, I located the carrots. I attempted to spear one. A switch flipped in my brain.
“THIS IS A SPOON,” I said to Disembodied Jules.
“Yes,” he replied.
“YOU SAID IT WAS A FORK.”
“I know,” he said. “But it’s a spoon. Couldn’t you tell from the feel of it?”
In the end, it was not the dinner, but the music, that got me. The weirdest tears ever somehow dribbled up and out, against gravity, from a brand new part of my gut. I should have collected them in my water bottle and labeled it This This This, Remember This.
Then someone lit a candle. My eyes adjusted. And the room was ten times bigger than I thought it would be.
*It may or may not have been this book, which simultaneously delighted and terrified me as a child.
** Quite small bites. If you go, eat a snack beforehand, so you can focus on the experience sans rumbly belly.
*** Turned out that the chef who prepared said carrots was sitting across from Jules the entire time. Later we found out that his day job is cooking vegan, organic meals for a preschool.****
**** VEGAN ORGANIC PRESCHOOL. Is this amazing, or is it as annoying as the babyccino? Discuss.
The Blind Café runs in several cities and returns to Seattle from February 11-13.