homecoming

sometimes when i sit down to write in this space, i wonder forward about whether and how my words will crystallize this particular time in my life. when i read them back to myself at some indistinct point in the future, what will they help me remember?

old passages i’ve written conjure up memories of a particular summer sweetness, or a dull and heavy dread, an uncertain waiting, a sharp vibrancy. and i am grateful for that. this course i’m traveling has felt long and varied, deep and complex, and i am glad to have records of it here.

i think of this now, because i have more to write. i have closed a stressful, demanding, exhilarating year as a teacher and grad school student. i have returned from two weeks walking so many unnamed roads and riding so many crowded buses and trains through europe. and i have come home to a house that is losing its sense of comfort and warmth.

during my travels, i came across this quote by maya angelou: “i long, as does every human being, to be at home wherever i find myself.” i love it. but i also wish, sometimes, that it wasn’t true. sometimes i want home to really be somewhere—or someone—outside of myself. for the homecoming to be a clicking into place, a slipping on of something soft, a true return. for now it’s just me; i am the keeper of my history, my comforts, my sense of place.

but i do my best. when i came back from my trip, i made sure to cook again. often, the kitchen—my kitchen—is where i feel most like myself. frantic trains of thought dissolve, self-doubt is replaced with self-assuredness, and i let myself be fully absorbed in what happens before me. the easy slice of the knife through juicy, meaty, ripe tomatoes; the sizzle and crisp of fat cheese slices on a hot pan; the smell of bread toasting behind me; the dry shake of garlic salt and fresh pepper sprinkled over it all. i ate this lazy summer meal every day my first week back, trying to regain my sense of land and ground. i hope embedded in this stack of ingredients—and this string of words—i’ll remember this odd, open-handed, wandering time of mine.

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Fried Provolone and Tomato Sandwich
Adapted from Food52
Makes 2 open-faced sandwiches 

Two 
¼-inch slices provolone cheese
1 
Tablespoon mayonnaise, plus more as needed
Two ½-inch thick slices sturdy, country-style bread
1
 medium-sized ripe tomato, preferably heirloom
Salt and freshly cracked black pepper, to taste

  1. Heat a nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Carefully add the slices of provolone and let them fry until crusty and golden on the outside but still gooey in the center, about 2 to 3 minutes total, carefully flipping them halfway through with a pair of tongs. Once they’re done, carefully remove cheese slices from the pan, allowing any excess oil to drip back into the pan, and blot gently on a paper towel.
  2. Spread the mayonnaise evenly across the slices of bread, adding more as desired. Core the tomato and cut it into 4 slices. Place the fried cheese on the bread, layer 2 tomato slices on each piece of bread, and sprinkle with salt and pepper.

soft as dusk

i spent a semester in australia when i was 20, and it was an absolutely formative experience. i learned for the first time that it was indeed possible – given the right conditions – for a mousy little girl like me to make friends quickly. to spend smoky nights in the quad, shooting the shit with perfect strangers. possible to open up, say yes, ditch class, skip town.

but it was inevitably also a deeply lonely time, and i spent a lot of afternoons wandering alone. i’d walk by the lake near campus, with its denim blue water and tall yellow grass growing along the water’s edge, and always one or two black swans. or i’d walk up and down the avenue of trees that ran through the center of campus – the leaves shimmered like facets: green when i first arrived, yellow by the time i left. 

one time i found myself at the museum, roaming from gallery to gallery, scrawling the names and titles of the little paintings i liked into my notebook. that’s how i came across the artist clarice beckett. for the longest time, after i’d already left, i couldn’t remember her name and found no trace of it scrawled in my sketchbook… i knew only the impossibly soft smudges of colors that pushed against each other, how they seemed to capture the very feeling i walked with in that place, the quiet, dreamy sadness of being young and in a beautiful place – completely on my own.

but by the glory of google, i’ve found them again. and it’s a lovely time to see them again, as i’m taking stock of my days, counting up the slow, thoughtful moments and finding them too few.

there’s a little bit of me, buried in my younger years, that i’d like to pull out for just a while, to witness this life i now have.

on and on

it’s important to run into yourself every once in a while. i remember reading something like that in a book i never finished (one of several – my attention span these days has been less than stellar).

i haven’t been around these parts in what feels like a long time. 

life has been good – life has been big – these past couple months, and i guess i’ve been busy going at it.

but a lot has changed, and sometimes you need to do yourself a little favor and have a spin and a good look around.

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it is strange to say i feel more grounded than ever. despite hopping on a plane to thailand, chasing a job up to san francisco, spending 18 hours in a little prius with a couple of my favorite people trying to find our way up to portland (oregon: you’re two for two), i feel even more rooted in this messy, ugly-pretty city i call home. i’m kind of figuring out who i am here, and not in that sit-in-the-shadows-and-think-about-it kind of way that i was so good at before. the real way. the living it out kind of way.

i read somewhere else that happiness is “someone to love, something to hope for, and worthwhile work to enjoy.” think about that for a bit. do you have all three? and if so, can your brain really handle it? …i’m being honestly curious here, because these days i wonder at it – and it’s a dizzying thought.

but i like it. and i think that’s what i love about where i am now. i’m still marked up with all sorts of imperfections, but i am happy. i am happy, and astounded that there could be even more in store somewhere up ahead.

shots of the season

NEW YORK –

during the holidays, walking among the crowds in manhattan doesn’t feel as much like madness as it does christmas camaraderie. the shop windows are dressed up in their finest, and we all walk around with our eyes up and twinkling.

 

one day i’ll lace up some skates and carve lines in the ice here, but that night it was enough to stop by for just a few minutes and look down at the skaters on the rink – before cutting across times square to the theater to watch a broadway musical: my first.

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BOSTON –

twinkle lights wrapped the trees all up newbury street, making this lane of little brick storefronts all the more charming as we walked on through in the twilight. we had gone into a very fancy store and i had bought a headband lined with pretty green feathers, which the clerk carefully wrapped in tissue and placed into a little bag. i swung that bag the whole walk back like a little kid with a new favorite thing.


CANADA –

on the day my plane landed, flakes were coming down in the softest whispers. by the time we arrived on the street where my friend lived, everything had gotten a powdered sugar dusting of snow.


there is nothing like sunlight on freshly fallen snow.


SANTA MONICA –

on somewhat of a whim, i met some friends at montana avenue on a friday night, when they were having their now-annual holiday walk.

 

in between free samples of cake and tiny cups of prosecco, we stopped in some of the most beautifully curated home decor stores i’ve ever seen.

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LOS ANGELES –

and a bit closer to home, we are in the middle of a week of rain. but it is so much sweeter when downtown paints the showers in christmas lights.

the view is most charming from the doorway of pete’s café, where all our closest friends had gathered for a cozy dinner and a couple orders of caramel bread pudding, shared across the table.


the weather here is mild – it always is, relative to everywhere i’ve been – but it’s still cold enough for the kind of cooking that steams up the kitchen windows: mushrooms and garlic in the oven, coq au vin burbling on the stove, my favorite mashed potatoes, and a cranberry-caramel tart i carried over to a friend’s house – i’ve been busy this week.


and this morning i still had room for these nutmeg doughnut muffins.

there won’t be snow here this christmas, but there is always a way to arrange one’s own powdered sugar dusting.

 

this city

the city of san francisco has never left me disappointed. the road up from los angeles has always been one that brought a delicious sense of anticipation, because there were always friends or food – or better yet, both – waiting on that northern end of the highway.

every spring for several years in high school, a tour bus would take a gaggle of us students up, always stopping at kettleman city for dinner before continuing on through the twilight until we reached the city. i loved looking out the window at the open land, darkening. i loved knowing my friends and i would soon be setting down our bags in our very own hotel room and then setting out to find a sourdough bread bowl of clam chowder as soon as possible.
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recently, as i’ve gotten older (and really started to feel it), san francisco has been a place to reunite with old friends who have wandered away in search of this or that – a law degree, a job, a new life. when i visit, for those two or three or four days, i get all the best bits of the city that they present to me: that street with all those cute boutiques, the museum with the sprawling lawn and the great view, a brunch spot with an eggs benedict almost as ridiculously good as the wait is ridiculously long.
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a couple weekends ago, for the first time, i got a chance to come into the city on my own. between dropping off one travel companion and meeting with another, it was just me and my little car as it curved with the bends in the road, passing by the low mountains of south san francisco and ducking under the shadows of the bridge. the light was just right at the end of the day – the kind of hazy dusk that softens even the sharpest of corners. and as i finally entered the heart of the city, making a right here, a wrong turn there, i saw those streets differently. i wondered what it would be like to make this different city my home. i just wondered.
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there was no conclusion to it. before long, my friend was hopping into the passenger seat, and we were on our way to meet a few others – a mix of the oldest and newest of friends – for dinner at a warm, delicious place called firefly.

i’m in no place to make any decisions – not yet – so i left my thoughts to evaporate over a plate of short ribs (rich, tender) and potatoes (buttery, perfectly smashed).  i figured there would be another 400 miles or so of road on the way home for those thoughts to finish themselves. for the first night back in this city, what to order for dessert (plum sorbet on honey orange blossom mousse) was enough.

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wild

it was a sight to see
so many people come from wherever they came from
to gather in the desert to see one simple flower

multiplied to stunning effect.

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these flowers are fiercely protected

only so they can grow wilder

more riotous and blowsy

and i like that idea.

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if you are anywhere near southern california, go soon – before the blooms fade in may.

it’s just two hours outside of the city i call home
so you just might see me back there on another of these weekends
perhaps this time with a picnic basket in hand.

antelope valley poppy reserve
15 miles west of lancaster
park hours: sunrise to sunset

a trip, fall

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i’ve returned from a journey over seas and across years, or so it felt.

i am not one for big weekends or late nights, stumbling into the next day with wild stories in hand and unexplained pictures on the camera.  if you know me, you know this.  even if you were to have just met me, i’m pretty sure you would still know this.  instead i am one for sitting by the window and dreaming, listening to the rain and thinking, quietly shuffling around the kitchen – or the pages of a book – and wondering at my life with the volume turned down low. it’s what the experts call absurdly introverted.

so when i say that after coming home, things have gotten quiet around here – it means they’ve been really, really quiet.

the trip was an important one. i saw friends i hadn’t seen in five years’ time.  friends whom, when i left them, i couldn’t be sure i’d ever see again.  time folded onto itself a bit while i was there, and i remembered more than i thought i did: who i was then and who i hadn’t yet become.

and to process all of this since i’ve been home? well, i’ve done nothing, almost exclusively.

aside from going back to work, which has involved some extraordinary snooze button-hitting and high-heeled feet-dragging, i’ve been taking comfort in little meals and favorite tv programs – to a pathetic extent. and my crazy-high level of self-esteem compels me to share the details now.

(yes, i do believe this little write-up is about to take an unfortunate turn.)

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food & tv pairings for the travel-weary

drive-thru hamburger on the road home from the airport
ice-cold coke
half of
gossip girl
before wilting into my blankets

a lamington, surprisingly moist and pillowy after being carried over the pacific in my suitcase
teeny glass of milk
castle

crispy fried squid with spicy salt
thick toast doodled with honey
how to make it in america
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there is some (anti)social anthropology that can be done here, i’m sure.  you can get to work on that while i go dig up an episode of—

earl grey tea cookies

before the almond cake came along, these were my favorite things to wrap up pretty and give away. because of the slice-and-bake method with which they’re made, the cookies bake up to be neat little discs that pack nicely into your desired container. a couple of years ago i stacked them inside cellophane bags, each tied off with a ribbon. this year i made a trip to the container store and bought a smart little canister to fill with them.

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these cookies are classic make-ahead fare. the log of dough can stay in the refrigerator or freezer until moments before you need them, at which time you can slice off a few or many – and before you know it, the scent of butter, vanilla, and tea is warming the air, and then toasty little rounds are sliding off the cookie sheet and onto a pretty plate (or into your mouth?…).

they’re a nice thing to have on hand for when plans change and you suddenly find yourself hostess – or perhaps when you pay a visit to an old friend and want to bring something sweet to go with the conversation. that was me just a couple of weeks ago, going to visit the art teacher who has known me pretty much my whole life. i am short on paintings to show her these days, but showing up with a plate of these cookies almost made up for it. (actually, it doesn’t come close. i miss the part of me that used to search to make beautiful things; i miss it dreadfully. but – i’m getting ahead of myself.)

and if you merely need an excuse to make some cookies, these ones cozy up quite nicely next to a steaming cup of simple black tea, which i find – regardless of the weather outside, which may or may not be winter-like – is a supremely comforting thing to come home to at the end of a night.

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Earl Grey Tea Cookies
adapted from Dorie Greenspan, via smitten kitchen
inspired by Apartment Therapy’s the kitchn

Makes about 50 cookies

2 sticks unsalted butter, at room temperature
½ cup confectioners’ sugar, sifted
¼ cup granulated sugar
2 large egg yolks, at room temperature
½ teaspoon of salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 Tablespoons finely ground Earl Grey tea leaves {I used the contents of 6 Bigelow tea bags}
2 cups all-purpose flour

  1. Put the butter in the bowl of a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment and beat at medium speed until it is smooth. Add the sifted confectioners’ and the granulated sugar, and beat again until the mixture is smooth and silky. Beat in the egg yolks, followed by the salt, vanilla, and tea leaves. Reduce the mixer speed to low and add the flour, beating just until it disappears. It is better to underbeat than overbeat at this point; if the flour isn’t fully incorporated, that’s okay; just blend in whatever remaining flour needs blending with a rubber spatula. Turn the dough out onto a counter, gather it into a ball, and divide it in half. Wrap each piece of dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate for about 30 minutes.
  2. Working on a smooth surface, form each piece of dough into a log that is about 1 to 1 ¼ inches thick. (Get the thickness right, and the length you end up with will be fine.) Wrap the logs in plastic and chill for 2 hours. (The dough can be wrapped airtight and kept refrigerated for up to 3 days or stored in the freezer for up to 1 month.)
  3. Position the racks to divide the oven into thirds and preheat the oven to 350°F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.
  4. While the oven is preheating, use a sharp slender knife to slice each log into cookies about 1/3 inch thick. (You can make the cookies thicker if you’d like; just bake them longer.) Place the cookies on the lined baking sheets, leaving about a ½-inch space between them.
  5. Bake the cookies for 12 to 14 minutes, or until they are just browned around the edges. Transfer the cookies to cooling racks to cool to room temperature.

Packed airtight, the cookies will keep for about 5 days at room temperature, or in the freezer for a month. Unbaked logs can be frozen for longer.

so l.a.

urth caffe never fails me.


honey vanilla latte – ordered strong, because that’s how this little machine runs these days.

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chicken curry sandwich – pleasantly sweet in between crusty halves of that fantastic bread.


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berry tart – tastiest little red and blue baubles i’ve ever eaten in the month of december.

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i carried quite a belly around with me the rest of the day – but that’s okay because driving all over los angeles and laughing loudly count as exercise, right?

in stars

i miss the days when i could dream myself out the window.

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i know it won’t always be like this. the work will one day settle itself (or i will wrestle it to the ground myself). friends will circle back into the fold. eventually the hours will fall by in a way that feels more like wind and less like… whatever this is.

but for now, every moment of solace is hard-won. and usually by accident.

i took myself to the beach last week, hoping for warm sun and the sight of water forever and the kind of peaceful noise that only an empty coastline can offer. but instead i was cold and goosebumply, unnerved by this creature that kept hanging around and staring at my sandwich:


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and finally scared off by a potbellied, sun-browned fisherman – shirt half-on – who kept eyeing me as he stalked the shoreline on a cigarette break. even so far up pch, pure solitude is hard to find.


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i left the beach and tried to redeem my outing with a quick turn into a park that overlooked the sea,

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where the people hanging around consisted mostly of families with small children, all of whom were securely clothed.

but even then…


so i count it as a loss. the week starts again, and the days turn like gears; the weekend comes and i find myself – quite by accident – sitting around the dinner table with a circle of friends that i never really counted as my own… and it’s here that i feel finally eased of my little burdens and, paradoxically, the most alone with my thoughts – in the best way. the way i have needed this whole time.

a friend and i have this broken thread of a discussion about what it is exactly that strange people like us need in order to finally feel at home in our own lives. i walked out at the end of that night, saw the stars up in the sky for the first time in i don’t know how long, and it felt like some kind of answer.

i still don’t know what that answer is, because i don’t speak in stars, but here is a pretty (sad) song.


(it’s the same guy who did the cheerier song i liked over here.)