Wednesday, October 20, 2010

a recipe for several kinds of warmth

The foods of the soul are many, but on the first truly cold night of autumn my favorite recipe is this:

Invite to your house a dear friend, maybe two. The ones I like best for this are those who will bring over books or journals, colored pencils, quiet, dreamy projects, and can spend the evening moving unselfconsciously from conversation into a reverie of work and back again.

Quiet music is all right, if you like it.

A bottle of apple cider, bought fresh and warmed in a pan with cinnamon sticks and afterwards poured over a little bit of whiskey in the mug, is a nice thing, and so is tea. Make sure you have something big enough to warm your hands -- not because it's cold, but so you can wrap it in your palms when you are lost in thought mid-conversation.

And at some point, probably the beginning so the fine smell of it will permeate the house as you sit pleasantly together, make some of this:

¼ cup shortening
¼ cup sugar
spices: how much? oh, plenty of cinnamon and a dash of ground cloves, or something like ten whole ones; I like a good grating of nutmeg too.
ginger -- fresh ginger is a must. I use a big nubbin and grate it in, making sure to squeeze the hairy useless nub over the pan before I toss it to get out all the good juices. half a cup of finely chopped candied ginger in addition is delicious.
1 ¼ cups flour
½ cup molasses
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda plus ¼ teaspoon baking soda
¾ cup boiling water
1 beaten egg
Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
Cream the shortening and sugar together. Sift the sugar, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, salt, flour and baking powder together. Beat the ½ teaspoon soda into the molasses until it is light and fluffy, and add to the shortening and sugar. Add the ¼ teaspoon soda to the boiling water, and then add it alternately with the sifted dry ingredients. Fold in the beaten egg when all is well mixed. The mixture will seem too thin to make a cake but do not increase the quantity of flour.

Pour into a greased and floured pan and long? if you use a loaf pan, almost an hour, sometimes more, depending on such strange vagaires as all good recipes depend on. You can use cake pans, but there is nothing so satisfying as the loaf, unless you pour it into muffin tins and make it like that instead...I find the muffins often come out oddly peaked, but no less delicious.

To be eaten with applesauce, somewhat dreamily.

Try to make extra and put it in the fridge; if anything, it is more heavenly the next day, thinly sliced and cold and buttered! MFK Fisher says so, and she's right.

This will stay the soul well against the coming winter.

Friday, October 15, 2010

haikus and small cthulhus

a haiku by Buson:

      The lights are going out
in the doll shops --
      spring rain.

My whole childhood is held in these words. There is the antique shop somewhere in Britain where my grandfather bought me my first china doll, named Marigold, a little doll with a sober face and brown silk ribbons on her dress, on an afternoon I remember as being gray and grim, and the dollshouse shops with tiny baskets full of flowers hanging from minute wrought iron curliques and four-poster beds resplendent in glass boxes. There is A Little Princess, the movie of which I never saw and so kept my own gray-golden gaslight impression of a London forever in the rain untouched, and the delicate and sentimental illustrations of The Story of Holly and Ivy  (though oddly enough Google Books presents me with a book called "Wall Street and the Security Markets" when I search for it, which almost makes sense on an allegorical level -- the one viciously spiked, the other dangerously inclined to take things over and choke them slowly to death? -- but sadly lacks the dainty post-Victorian aesthetic.) And a thousand other faint and luminous layers of half-dreamed images, falling away inside me to be fitted tenderly into the case of my heart.

all the tools work...

I spent a lot of time alone when I was young. I liked it that way; I like it that way now. I like haiku for its relationship to solitude, its intense evocativeness. (And why is evocative only an adjective, evoke only an active verb, and no noun exists to characterize the evocative essence of things, that which evokes?) It opens little doorways into worlds, one small painter's box of words containing a beautifully unbounded space inside, a mutable universe.  

A haiku is what my father once called a toy: "Every toy is a microcosm, a miniature model of the universe. Like the great cosmos, the toy has a spark of life or motion that acts from inside out. But it's a toy because it's small and comprehensible, a thing we can grasp, a thing so trivial it can be handed to a child. The toy gives me the world in a form I can hold." My other words for this are trinket, amulet.

Those vast worlds held close in amulaic things -- small bottles, boxes, certain words and talismans, a stone, a spice -- share for me certain colors. Those of my my childhood seems steeped in a way of seeing that takes the light directly from Impressionism but fills it with a sadder rain. (Even John Singer Sargent, who should have known better, being British, fills his paintings with such dappled warmth...) James Tissot's portraits, though, especially of women, come somewhere near the rainy, lamp-lit and delightful melancholy of my youngest reveries....

And so too, uncomfortably enough, does Thomas Kinkade:

My childhood was not all treacle, though, and there is this wonderful painting to counteract the manufactured syrup of The Painter of Light (TM):

Ah yes, Cthulhu. Insipid landscape painters beware.At this size on my screen, a couple inches square, this too becomes a talisman: what is more wonderful than a very tiny monster?

Monday, October 11, 2010

some cities in my skull

I can't seem to stop listening to the very best of ethiopiques --this stuff throws open the doors to all the dream cities in my head, in all their surreal fused glory of film noir and Baudelaire and Betty Boop and vintage belly dance. It rains there, sometimes, but the rain is not the point, the way it usually is when I'm out in the world and not sneaking around doing serpentine dances in the back alleys of my skull. Here's Tlahoun Gesessee's Sema, which is what Ralph Stanley's O Death would sound like if it was sung in the enchanted metropolis of my mind full of Moorish windows lit up and darkened among nightblooming desert things:

And here's Getatchew Mekurya's Antchi Hoye, which is like the soundtrack to the world's strangest and most magical cartoon. Which I haven't got around to making yet. Sorry.

These are some of the miraculous musicians of Ethiopia's golden years of jazz, the James Browns and Cab Calloways of their own country -- and speaking of Cab Calloway, since I don't have anything lying around that looks enough like the luminous dark alleys in my head to give you a glimpse, here's one of the world's best and most bizarre existing cartoons instead:

This is some of what I mean when I say the city...

Friday, October 8, 2010

old sweetnesses, part two

This, even older: from 2006, part of a book I made my high school boyfriend, pieced together in hostel rooms in Amsterdam and Venice. I brought college supplies with me and worked on it in secret, every morning when he was still asleep.

It’s raining, and I come out of sleep slowly, shaking off fragments of dream for the steady warmth of your body pressed against me and the pale light seeping through my eyelids. When I open my eyes the sky is the color of parchment , the rain rattling against the roof and whispering in long snaking whips against the window panes. Your arm lies draped over my hips, solid with the blood coursing through the slender blue veins; your skin is silky and dry, and you don’t stir when I stroke you with my fingertips. I stretch my legs out and the sweetness of it all, the comfort of the sheets wrapped around me, the secretive patter of the rain, your whole body soft and heavy with sleep curled round mine, the blue-grey light of a wet sun not yet risen, the knowledge that I can stay here as long as I like, envelops me like a down comforter, wrapping around me and tucking itself in comfortably at the edges of my consciousness. My eyes drift shut against the curve of your body and I lie for a long time on the edge of sleep, more perfectly comfortable than I can ever remember being. I’m growing impatient for you to wake up and share the dawn with me; I want you to hear the rain too, the way it murmurs to itself, sealing us off from the rest of the world. I feel that I’m in a nest somewhere on a mountainside in a storybook, where mice wear little hats and go sledding on beech leaves and drink elderberry wine out of acorn cups.

The rainy morning reminds me of my childhood, of being five years old and visiting my grandparents at Christmas in their house in England, a house with fields and woods behind it, where you couldn’t see cars or streets from the little winding lane, only the smoke rising from the chimneys and the horses blowing clouds of frosty breath in the cold air. In the mornings I would wake up before anyone else and look out the window and there would be snow muffling the quiet circle of houses, and I would bound silently out of bed into the kitchen, where my grandfather would be, eating his cereal in the misty light from the great glass windows. The kitchen was all warm brown wood and looked over an old-fashioned English garden with rosebushes and a long low lawn and pea plants and raspberry canes and an aviary full of lovebirds who twittered sleepily in the cold, and there was a little gate at the bottom of the garden – even the words are like a storybook – that led out into the little high-walled lane. My grandfather would pour me some cereal and I would eat it solemnly and he would take my hand and give me my red hat and take me walking in the snowy fields.

The fields were divided by long hawthorn and hazelnut hedges, and the horses would come and put their noses over the icy gates for a slice of apple, and the cardinals would fly down from the black branches and cock their scarlet heads at us, and sometimes we would see rabbits and once even a fox. The bare trees and the fields stretched as far as I could see, an untouched countryside with here and there a snowy roof with a trickle of smoke rising, and it was so timeless: it could have been 1914 for all the silence and the steaming flanks of the animals. We would go into the woods, not the ponderous, reverent forests we have back home but little, warm, merry woods, all full of oaks and beeches and holly and a little tinkling stream that ran through icy black banks and waterfalls spiky with icicles to a round pond like a picture postcard, just right for glowing, happy boys and girls to skate figure eights on. My grandfather told me that these were the real Hundred Acre Woods, where A. A. Milne came to write about Winnie the Pooh, and it turned out to be true, but mostly neither of us said much, just walked, my gloved hand clutched tight in his, and listened to the silent, muffled world, the tiny rustles and crackings the birds made in the bushes, the crunch of the frost under our feet. There was no one else about, and the world belonged entirely to us, a vast, secret world outside of time.

When we got back to the house, everyone else would be up and scrambling about, sliding down banisters and frying eggs and bacon; everything was noisy and alive and smelled wonderfully of breakfast, and the misty, snowy peace was shattered. But I didn’t really mind; it was good to come back to the warmth and the clatter of family with my cheeks pink, and they didn’t know about the secret world, anyway. It was still mine. I think about that now, looking at you, your lashes fluttering as you breathe. I want you awake but I don’t want to wake you; your sleep is part of my secret world, like the insinuating patter of the rain. I sit up and find that it’s chilly. My skin goes goosebumpy in the cold light but I get up anyway, careful to lay the covers back around you, and I go to the window naked and throw it open and lean my head out, breathing in the rich earthy smell of the rain on warm pavement. Nothing moves in the sodden dawn but the trees shaking off their loads of heavy drops. Across the garden I can see into someone’s kitchen. The light is on, a warm golden glow, and there is a woman moving about in her bathrobe making coffee. She’s part of the same secret world, just the two of alive in the silence, enjoying the rain and the gray-gold light, light the color of turtledoves. You sleep so deeply behind me, keeping the covers warm, and after a moment I pad back across the cool floorboards and crawl back into bed with you, snuggling myself against you as if you were a large sleepy pillow, and pull your arms around me like a blanket. Your fingers brush my breasts, wet from the rain, and you stir drowsily and nuzzle my neck, already asleep again.

He tells me his girlfriends are bitter, even now, if he ever shows the book to them. When I ask him why he doesn't seem to know.

old sweetnesses, part one

I found this today, from the spring of 2008. I had forgotten how I used to write, only and always an outpouring of a devoted love I can't quite remember, like a favorite dress found in a closet many times too small...

The stirring

For Tim

You are not made of bone or stone but wood.

I can feel your roots as they go down

Into my earth, your heartwood in its slow

Expansion with the running of the sap.

In the hollow of our bellies lie the shadows

Of dim caves carved slowly into streambanks;

There in my recesses where wet leaves

Have drifted richly your tongue a tiny frog

Is quivering. He leaps in miniature,

Disturbing gently the damp grotto. Here

The limbs branching from the living crotch

Are mine where the frog crouches, mine

The soft bank crumbling, the stream pouring

Over pebbles in clear currents my body also

Covered in small skeins of dancing light.

I pool deep green into the curve of you.

There you send down dusty shafts of sun

Through which minute fish your fingertips

Are darting, each flash surprising

The half-mirror of my reflecting surface.

Your mouth touches me like raindrops

Falling on the ferns uncurling sharply

In my heart; down in my soil stirs

The bright insistent thrust of a new shoot.

Our scent is fresh and bitter as a leaf

Rubbed between our fingers. In me you are

A sudden sunwarmed current from upstream

Running gold into my stillness. The frog’s throat

Pulses. The fish dart outward in a burst

Like liquid glass, and your reflection

Shatters into sunlight when he leaps.

Your rain drips from my leaves. In me the sap is

Flowing up to shake out into blossom.

Does it make me sad or only nostalgic, knowing that I would never now write this for another?

Monday, August 30, 2010

hot toddies

When I was a kid I loved my solitude so much that it never really occurred to me to feel myself alone. My chief pleasures consisted of a thick book and a good snack, hours spent playing with my dollshouse, and falling asleep in the midst of dreamy and elaborate detailing of a vast, exquisite mansion based partly on the architecture of Julia Morgan and partly on a very old-fashioned book I loved around age nine called The Little White Horse. I always managed to have a few friends, whose parents took us places like the mall and allowed us fluorescent treats like Gushers, and this was fun and daring for a cloistered kid like me, but there was always a fierce and silent part of me occupied entirely with the longing to leave and get back to living the extravagant existence of my mind. I had several running narratives, one for each of my two dollshouses (a miniature one, for which I spent hours poring over magazines in search of things like tiny jars with lids that really opened to spend my allowance on, and one I built in my closet for a china doll my grandfather bought me one gray afternoon in London, whose story was a kind of pirated amalgamation of A Little Princess and The Story of Holly and Ivy) and one for the house I built inside my head each night, which I visualized in such rambunctious detail that I can still walk into the rooms in my mind, turn all the way around, and open up the cabinets and drawers...

It's been a long time since I thought of solitude as a state of presence and not absence. The truth is that my sudden longing for my own rich and vivid company somehow ceases to exist in the presence of a lover: when there is even the potential for intimate attention, my brain acts like a puppy begging to be patted. In the last few years, through college in particular, when I have been faced with being by myself what I feel is not the pleasure of a few hours entirely my own but a kind of drippy uselessness, an inability to genuinely entertain myself. My mind, instead of inviting up my heart and soul for tea, stares listlessly out the window; the absence of other people - or more precisely, other people's attention - is like some obscure thing on the horizon I am too busy trying to make out to notice how my awareness seeps away and leaves me dull and sluggish, not even present in myself enough to feel alone.

I am thinking about this tonight mostly because I am not only alone but also suddenly and unexpectedly unwell: a sore throat, ringing ears, aches and exhaustion, a dull fuzz between my eyes, a sharp decline in my ability to take a deep breath and believe in the best of things. Since childhood, being sick has made me feel utterly, peculiarly lonely and pathetic: all I want is to be fussed over, checked up on, taken care of. There is not sympathy enough in all the world for my headcolds.

It's not that I think my malaise is especially extreme; I just find it strangely impossible to avoid turning into a whimpering five-year-old every time I get the flu. If you tell me a story about a child whose lost its teddy bear at times like these I'll bawl. I don't like feeling wildly, desperately anguished and alone; it just sucks me under, as if it was a symptom as real as the aching joints, and the suction it exerts upon my soul has begun to mildly alarm me. I am just beginning to rediscover what it's like to spend a night alone and not just waste the hours that lie between myself and other people's interest; I was planning to enjoy my evening when the aches set in, and with them the fierce and desperate longing to curl up in my lover's arms and cry, and have my forehead stroked, and be fed soup and other comforting and childlike things, and with that, or rather the plain fact that I am by myself tonight, set in a wave of such intense loneliness and longing that it just got simply insupportable.

And so I determined that I would fight it if it killed me. Instead of sending myself shivering and snuffling to bed at eight o'clock, full of self-pity and sad sentiments, I went out and got the necessary ingredients for my one of my father's favorite cures for all ills spiritual, emotional, and physiological: hot lemonade with whiskey. Here, in my best MFK Fisher mood of verve and vitality, is the recipe:

1 lemon
hot water
a nub of fresh ginger, the more the better, but at least a tablespoon or two
shot of whiskey

Juice a whole lemon into a small saucepan. If it's not an especially juicy lemon, juice another one. Add enough water to make a satisfying mugful, two or three tablespoonfuls of honey, and a splash of cinnamon. (A Yogi Tea Throat Coat teabag can be nice too.) Grate the nub of ginger into the pot, turn the heat to medium low, and let it simmer merrily for five minutes or so. Add more honey if it's getting too spicy for you, strain into a mug, and let cool for a minute before adding the whiskey. Mix well and drink hot.

Or, for a quicker, sharper pick-me-up:

shot of whiskey
chili powder

Dissolve a little honey into the shot of whiskey, add a shake of chili powder, stir and swallow. Follow with a good book (Something like an illustrated Wind in the Willows is really the best thing, no matter how old you are), a cozy bed, and a sense of strong determination not to let a feisty little microbe get you down.

It's really the conviction that even in the throes of sickness I can still enjoy my own damn company that does it, but that lemonade is one of the most soothing things you can do for your poor body in any time of woe...

Saturday, August 28, 2010


I would like to reclaim the word foody for my own honorable and unpretentious use, cleanse it of its pretension and expense, and fill it full of the wild delight in scent and flavor and situation that animates me when I think about the things that nourish me. And I mean brown bread and cheese and avocados, fresh mangoes and cold white wine in summer, steamed mussels dipped in butter and a thousand other things to sing along the tongue -- but I also mean the things that I use to feed myself when I am financially or spiritually or emotionally broke, the ways I staunch my other hungers: lust, and longing, and loneliness, and loss. I mean to make myself a lexicon of the fulfilling: I would like to share my talismans, my ways of feeling full in every sense -- full of good food, strong love, and the overflowing shining bounty of the world. I think compassion, gratitude, appreciation and a healthy sense of irony should be stored in small glass bottles in the spice cabinet you keep in the kitchen of your heart. I think recipes and amulets work the same kind of magic. I will give you what I have.