Tuesday, July 19, 2011

NWAWP: Anthology piece

As part of the NWAWP Summer Institute, we are asked to produce a number of writings, one of which goes into an anthology that everyone gets a copy of.  Here is the piece I have been working on since the first day of the SI about my kitchen.

Our Kitchen

            The concrete is cool beneath my bare feet.  It’s summer, so the windows are open and the breeze rustles the leaves and carries the scent of the outdoors into the kitchen, where I stand at the counter, contemplating dinner.  The sunshine-yellow walls lend a soft glow to the shady space and the floor is a pleasant contrast to the summer warmth, a heat kept somewhat at bay by the surrounding trees.  We try not to run the small air conditioner—stationed in one of the two kitchen windows—which must work too hard to keep the entire house reasonably cool.  Instead, we rely on shade and gusts of fresh air to keep our home tolerable during the hot, thick Arkansas days.  In the winter, the floors are frigid even with thick socks and slippers on, but in the summer, it is enjoyable on bare feet.  Even when it reaches the hottest part of the day, the floor is a relief as I remove stifling shoes and spread my toes to allow the coolness to seep in, and we are thankfully past the period where they sweat from the sudden temperature changes of late spring.  I do not use our oven much in the summer.
            Neko, our tubby tortoiseshell, lies with warm belly pressed into the cold floor, regarding me with amber eyes, waiting for me to offer a treat: a dab of peanut butter, a corner of cheese, or a spoon of canned cat food.  The cat and one person are all the space holds comfortably: we live in a small duplex with only a corner that holds standard kitchen appliances as well as a washer and dryer.  Along the one wall that opens out into the living room, stand the refrigerator, the storage freezer with the microwave on top, a bookcase transformed into a pantry by simply adding food to its shelves, the finicky gas stove, and the dryer.  We don’t have much counter space, so the dryer also serves as a baking station with my beloved second-hand Kitchen Aid in a place of honor and easy reach.  Parallel to this wall and separated by a pitifully small gap reside the few kitchen cabinets full of dishes and bakeware, the sink, and the one stretch of counter, which is dominated by canisters, dish-drainer, and toaster-oven.  I often gaze out the window above the sink as my hands methodically scrub plates, cups, cast iron skillets.  No dishwasher, alas.  Along the short connecting wall—and below the home of the air conditioner—is a “temporary” prep table, housing a massive butcher block remnant from a friend’s kitchen renovation.  It is here where carrots are chopped, onions diced, tofu cubed for our latest meal.  In front of this table is a kitchen stool acquired for $5 from a yard sale that my husband loves because he grew up with a stool in the kitchen, and the cat loves because she can sit on it and beg for treats, and I love because it becomes additional space for my copy of How to Cook Everything Vegetarian or the mixing bowl that I need to set aside and have no room for. 
            The kitchen itself has a spot for every item, though it may seem a bit cluttered to the untrained eye: the bookshelf-turned-pantry is loaded with homemade pickles and jams made from our own garden’s bounty or farmers’ market purchases, as well as canned tomatoes and coconut milk, boxes of pasta, jars of beans and rices in several colors and varieties, little tins and sacks of exotic spices.  I occasionally attempt to inventory, to sort, to tidy up the shelves, but in the rush of cooking and living, the sheer volume of random ingredients acquired from Indian and Asian grocers and health food stores and the bargain bin at Marvin’s IGA bursts from their holes and spills out until I’m once again digging through piles of sacks looking for the cumin or that little blue Ziploc of matcha powder or the cinnamon sticks.  Once, in a frenzy of cleaning and sorting, I accidentally threw out cumin seeds because it looked like fennel and we already had lots of fennel and my husband had neglected to label it.  We then proceeded to yell at each other, me at him about labeling the damned spices from the bulk bins, him at me about yelling at him and throwing out items I couldn’t identify.  It ended with us laughing so hard that we had to lean on the kitchen counter and catch our breath.
            It’s afternoon, and because of where our house is, the sun doesn’t shine directly in the windows at five o’clock, as I’m removing ingredients from the refrigerator to begin cooking.  With the summer air slowing my blood, I feel like cooking something simple, light, crisp.  A salad, perhaps, with greens picked from the garden?  Or Asian-inspired summer rolls, served with a spicy peanut sauce we love so much?  A quick stir-fry sounds good, where I can toss anything and everything lurking in the crisper, along with a splash of soy, a dash of sriracha, a hearty dollop of ginger and garlic for flavor.  Served over rice and eaten with the chopsticks given to us after a friend’s trip to Japan, stir-fry is one meal we never seem to tire of because of its infinite possibilities.  I begin measuring rice to cook on the stove while I proceed to prepare the vegetables and heating oil in the large cast iron.  I rarely measure anything anymore—just a pour and a spoonful and a taste until it’s just right.  It’s an art taught to me by my husband, who cooks by feel.  I’m much more of a baker, which requires strict measuring and precision and following directions carefully, but he balances out my desire for constant order, and I learned how to cook by taste instead of methodically moving through a recipe.  It certainly makes cooking more of an adventure, though it can be unfortunate when I make something delicious and I have no idea what proportion of ingredients went into it and my friends want the recipe.
Sometimes, especially when there’s more than one cook and her cat, I wish our kitchen were spacious, all white and stainless steel, polished and stacked neatly.  Instead, I have clutter and piles and a blocked set of drawers that I keep trying to get my husband to set free.  Sometimes I wish the sacks of fragrant spices were jars lined up in alphabetical order, locked sterilely away in a cabinet instead of out for any visitors to eye and pass their silent judgment.  Like my mother before me, I long for a space that belongs in the pages of a Martha Stewart magazine, where there is a place for everything and everything in its place.  But unlike my mother before me, I know better than to think that I will ever actually live in such a space because even if I had that white kitchen, it would be spattered with cake batter or from sauce or from jams.  There would be dishes in the sink and food on the counters and the cat would insist on being on the floor, leaving bits of herself behind for me to constantly sweep up.  Occasionally, it would be in order, but only because we went out for Thai that day, or one of us got tired of the clutter and cleaned it up.  Our kitchen is simply too often used to ever be gleaming and perfectly clean—something is always out of place because of a project in process or because of a project just completed.  A true workshop.
            It doesn’t stop me from trying to replicate the kitchen in my head, though.  That kitchen has everything labeled and easy to find and that kitchen doesn’t have a table half-blocking the column of drawers, making opening and closing them futile and frustrating and punctuated by OWs and DAMN-ITs and SHITs.  In my mind, the cabinets have been repainted from the strange orange-pink that looks like tainted Pepto to a cheery red to complement the cheery yellow, or a demure gray.  The stove actually lights when I flip on the gas instead of intermittently working and then having to be lit by the cigarette lighter we keep in the spice rack.  The detritus on the floor has found a place and the kitchen is more spacious and open because the clutter has been tidy squirreled away.  The dishes are always promptly washed (by my husband, of course).  We have a dishwasher.  I can stand to use the oven in the summer in this kitchen, without having to stand scantily clad and pouring sweat.  And no matter how much we cook, the kitchen is always clean and tidy because we wash up as we work and the floors are swept free of any debris.
            But I love our kitchen, piles and all.  I love the rows of canning jars hidden high above the kitchen window, with the door that falls open occasionally, scaring whomever is standing by the sink.  I love the temporary table that hasn’t moved in the two years we’ve lived in the house, which hides away our recycling bin, and boxes of jars found while clearing out an abandoned attic.  It’s often a frustrating space, limited in counter and cabinet and overflowing with bakeware and ingredients.   But it’s also a space where I create.  It’s where I stir batters and release the worries from the day while pulling muffins with perfectly mounded tops from the old gas oven.  It’s where I meditate, measuring flour and sugar and butter, blending and beating into creamy perfection.  It’s where I have created the perfect pancake, baked cupcake after delectable cupcake and explored countless recipes, flavors, and textures.  When I enter the kitchen, even when it swirls with chaos, the act of opening a cookbook and setting out the ingredients and mixing bowls is an act of purification and calming.  I am totally focused when I bake, my mind devoid of the never-ending to-do list or anxiety about tasks or stress from having too much to do and too little time.  When I cook, I enter a mini-Zen state where it’s just me, the cookbook, the ingredients, and the making.  I exist because I create.
In this kitchen, my husband and I learned to cohabitate and cooperate and forgive each other.  When we first started cooking together, he would relegate me to the corner to open cans.  After I demanded more skillful tasks, he allowed me to chop vegetables, but he often hovered so much that I wanted to chop him.  He said it was because he was afraid I’d cut myself with my limited knife skills; I think it was because his engineering mind does not enjoy when other people do tasks less efficiently—basically, not how he would do them.  We move in cycles with our cooking together.  Ideally, we complete tasks in separate spaces with separate goals and reunite to bring the dish together.  I’ll make the sauce, he’ll cook the pasta.  Or I’ll chop the vegetables, and he’ll fry the tofu.  At the other end, he stands over my shoulder critiquing my pancake cooking or adding spices and ingredients to my soup without asking me, and I scold him for cooking with too much fish sauce or using butter when a little olive oil would be just fine or for dumping too many ingredients in my macaroni and cheese when I just want it to be straightforward and simple.  Yet, we generally manage to work peaceably in the kitchen, listening to music and chatting amiably, asking one another questions, such as What is it missing? Do you think it needs more salt? Do you want quinoa or rice with this?  Many of our sweetest moments happen in the kitchen, like when I walk up behind him while he’s stirring something and wrap my arms around his waist and bury my face into the best part of neck, warm and smelling of him, or when he wraps me in a strong embrace.  He has learned to wait for me to ask for help if I want it, rather than listing what is wrong, and I have learned that sometimes allowing him to dump lots of spices in a dish makes it pretty tasty.
Our kitchen is the place where we have fought over dishes, he insisting that I not wash dishes after I failed to get them clean enough (fine with me) and especially when I stabbed myself in the arm by leaving a paring knife pointy end up in the dish-drainer (no, it was not intentional); unfortunately, I sometimes have to prod him to wash them.  It is the place where he made our wedding food, beginning with durum semolina and a pasta roller and ending with trays and trays of the best vegetarian lasagnas that you’ve ever eaten and freshly baked bread.  We spend so much of our days thinking about and discussing food, followed by cooking and sharing, that the food at our wedding was required to be spectacular.  And spectacular it was, with everyone dishing up plates of lasagna, carving up pies, and diving into the cakes and homemade ales, much of it made in our small, humble kitchen.
It’s where we’ve hosted wildly successful parties, everyone standing around in the kitchen with plates and drinks in hand or on the counters, sampling the food we’ve created with our two hands or that friends have brought with them.  Many of our friends are exceptionally good cooks, and it’s always fun to see what everyone will bring to a social gathering.  When we host a party, we always have plenty of good, homemade food—I generally make a cake that is both a feast for the eyes and the mouth, and he makes these amazing steamed dumplings that are never the same—and the wine and beer are plentiful.  It turns out that a small space makes for a great gathering, since everyone is forced into close proximity and conversation and the few chairs are constantly being vacated and occupied in random rotation.  We love hosting parties in our tiny home because it makes the whole house light up and feel alive, buzzing with music and conversation and the scrape of plates and the groans of full stomachs.  On nights like this, you can almost feel the kitchen smile with the pleasure of a place satisfied with having a purpose.  And ultimately, that’s why I love our kitchen: it’s where we live.

Monday, July 18, 2011

NWAWP: Fayetteville Moment

I wanted to share my "Fayetteville Moment" with you all.  I wrote this piece as part of the 2011 NWAWP Writing Marathon.  All day, we hung out around Fayetteville and wrote.  At 1pm, the entire group stopped whatever they were working on and wrote "in the moment."  My friend J and I were at the pool, so I observed the life going on around me and wrote!

Wilson Park Pool: 12:58 PM
            There’s this little kid, like maybe four years old and his mother has just yanked him into the water because he was splashing at us.  I find that as a childless woman who teaches adults that I have little patience for small, mischievous children.  Sure, my baby nieces are cute and I enjoy hanging out with my friends’ children, but kids I do not really know?  Not so crazy about.  This might change when I have my own child, maybe.
            The Wilson Park Pool: a Fayetteville oasis for summer-freed kids and their parents and for NWAWP fellows who need freedom from chairs and tables and sitting.  The smell of spray-on sunscreen wafts through the air, accenting the scent of chlorine and trees.  The water glistens like my sapphire-like drop earrings, warmed slightly by the sun but still refreshing on the hot, sunny day.  Children’s excited voices blend with splashing and gasps of air: the large plop of a little boy leaping into his mother’s waiting arms, the kick-kick-kick! of a little girl practicing her swimming, the gaspcough of novices learning how to dunk the heads beneath the water’s surface.  I’m amazed by the bravery of these children, who splash and leap and submerge as though water were just wet air, posing no threat.
            Adults—mostly parents and two NWAWP fellows—watchfully guard their offspring, occasionally joining in the delight of the water.  They sun themselves, apply sunscreen.  You can tell the families that come regularly: they have their routines, their designated places, their friends who come by smiling and greeting.
            A tall lifeguard comes by, tanned and clad in red shorts and chacos, the summer uniform of the teenagers who watch over these waters.  They patrol, blow whistles, and keep children from breaking the laws of the land.  The pool is its own country and it is dominated by youth and controlled by the posted rules and enforced by the red-suited adolescents.  They are wary, watchful, aloof.
            We are here to write, of course, but while we’re here, why not take a dip?  We leap…well, we lower ourselves, anyway, into the water feeling how it flows over our skin.  I move my arms and legs fluidly and cut through the water.  I cannot stay still, just as I cannot be near the water without being in it.  I would swim until I passed out, if I could.  I always regret that my mother never taught me how to swim properly when I was young because I harbor a deep fear of jumping in and remain jealous of the six year olds who leap without concern.  And although I’m a perfectly adequate swimmer, I’m uncomfortable straying too far from a hand hold.  I watch these kids who dip and dive without fear and hesitation, and I wonder how different my life would be if I were bold enough to leap, anxiety-free, from the diving board.
            The hourly break time is over, and at the sound of the whistles, the kids let out a collective cry and leap as one into the water.  It’s just like a movie, and we are so stunned at the sight that we laugh.  They resume their activities, and the new arrivals pause only for a quick douse of sunscreen before joining their fellow creatures.  One mother wrangles her little girl into a swim vest before releasing her into the wild.
            Two of the regular adults, a couple wearing their matching sunhats, leap into the pool to cool off.  They look as though ten years ago, they were wild and free, into punk rock and possibly smoking pot.  Having children and growing older, they find those days have faded to fond memories and hazy impressions and cautionary tales to tell their children.  The man is heavily tattooed, an impressive and lovely tree curling across his back, an owl perched at his left shoulder.  The tree and owl are artfully done, and I find myself admiring it and thinking that the fact it is not realistic is a point in its favor.  I also wonder what it means to him.  They reemerge from the water, refreshed, to resume their napping and reading.  Their kids are old enough that they do not feel the need to guard them, as the parents of the toddlers do.
            A little girl rushes up and plaintively complains of hunger, but her mother is busy scribbling in a notebook and shoos her away.  Other children should CANNONBALL while jumping into the water in a manner other than ball-like.  I think they just want to shout something and cannonball lends itself nicely to being screamed while leaping through the air.
            Everyone complains that the Wilson Park Pool is too filled with children (and children’s water) to be any fun for an adult, but I disagree.  For one, the concentration of young swimmers is the shallow end; only the older and bolder venture far from where they can’t reach the bottom, leaving plenty of space for the adults to swim laps, leap from the diving board, or float peaceably far from the splashing and cannonballs and shouts and squeals.  For another, there’s something essentially summer about the sounds of individuals who come to the pool not because they need to exercise but for the pure pleasure of moving in and under and through the water.  They form small clumps of associates, dare each other to dive or to jump, and chatter excitedly.  They are full of joy and life, thinking not about how many calories swimming burns or that their form isn’t just right.  All they seem to consider is that the water is cool and refreshing, that humping in is enormously fun, that learning to do handstands impresses their fellow swimmers, and that swimming freakin’ awesome.
            A man, approximately as round as he is tall, asks us if we are doing homework.  “Writing,” we reply.  “About what?” “Well, the pool.”  “Good place for it.”  We smile and return to our notebooks.  It’s almost time to leap into the water again and then to try off and head to our next location. The breeze stirs the trees above us and dries the water off us.  If you listen closely, the sound of leaves clattering complements the splashing, shouting, and chatter, and here we are in the midst of a snapshot of a perfect July day in Fayetteville.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Summer Institute: Week One Reflection

We are now in the second week of the NWP Summer Institute, and interesting results have begun already.  Though we have three more weeks (or so) of the SI left, I think we've leaped over a major hurdle.  The first day, several Fellows expressed their anxiety and fear about writing, about teaching writing, and about sharing their writing.  By the end of the first week, a perceptual shift had already begun.  Many who swore they would never present found themselves in Author's Chair* at the end of the day, reading stories and reflections that were beautiful and inspiring in so many ways.  In our response groups (made up of four individuals), fellows who claimed to be anxious about writing were sharing their pieces.  The attitude change can really only be the result of a) being told that writing is important, b) being given time to write, c) having a friendly, receptive, and active audience, and d) hearing others talk about themselves as writers and listening to others' writing.

I find this transformation (after only one week, mind you!) fascinating.  I came in assuming all the Fellows were writers who were comfortable with writing and were simply looking for a professional development that would help them build on that identity and their skills to teach writing even better.  Imagine my shock when a couple of teachers expressed their anxiety about writing and about teaching writing.  I found myself in a minority of Fellows who truly felt comfortable in saying "I'm a writer," and in sharing my writing with a broader audience.

I think this dramatic shift speaks highly both of my fellow participants and of what the National Writing Project can do.  It's exciting, and as I'm writing during Silent Sustained Writing time, I'm happy for the opportunity to be here, learning from my peers and actually spending time with pen to paper (or fingers to keys) producing words and realizing how important working daily on writing is to me.

*Author's Chair is the half hour set aside at the end of the day for the Fellows to share any piece of writing with the whole group.