Saturday, May 28, 2011


I've been asked many times in the last few months, "So what are your plans for next year?"

I have been terrible at answering.

This wordlessness surfaced while Maggie and I sat beside her firepit, tea mugs in hand, and the only conversation we could think of was "what we are doing next year", or more accurately, the ups and downs of not knowing. The greatest tragedy we found was when we suddenly found that we had nothing to say to each other. It grew quiet and Maggie noted, "I don't know how to talk about anything else anymore."

I didn't either.

While I waited for the processional at graduation with my faculty marshal, Judith McKelvey, she and were talking about the past year and the coming year. I had just finished explaining to a very important person in the English department that I had no idea what next year was going to look like. It wasn't exactly what I wanted to be telling someone responsible for arranging my access to educational opportunities in the last four years but I didn't know what else to say. I hadn't come up with a nice way of crafting the "I Don't Know" like other answers I had heard in this interminable conversation. Mac said she had appreciated my honesty.

"I don't understand it," she said.

"What do you mean?"

"My son would understand this. His autism helps him see things very bluntly. Why do people say things they don't mean? Why don't they just say 'I don't know' more easily? And why do we all ask you this question about next year? Are we just asking because we think we're supposed to? Why do I ask you about next year when I could ask you about the book sale you went to and we could talk about what you're reading? I only asked because I was supposed to."

Then we started walking and I had to pay attention to my clumsy banner.

I wonder: when did I stop knowing how to converse? Did graduating shove me into the loss of my small talk skills? Do I even know how to have a conversation and truly see and engage the person I am talking to? Is this a gracious skill that we have lost? Did I ever even have it?

And what am I supposed to do now that I do know what I am "doing" next year?

Monday, May 23, 2011

The Love of Soup

Sauteing carrots, celery, onion, and garlic
 One writer and one scientist attempt to follow a new recipe which results in the writer meditating on the meaning and significance of soup in her life.

Anjali and I are as different as cumin and rosemary. I think this works though through our similarities and shared loves:

-Ballroom is important (though in how, we differ)
-We read the Russians
-We love soup

 Today, Anjali and I began what I think will become as Summer 2011 tradition: a shared Sunday dinner of soup. This was inspired when I impulsively bought "The Soup Bible" when I bought my cap and gown. I sat on the floor of the HUB bookstore near tears in delight.

Soup is a marvelous thing. I recently declared that if Soup was a love language, it would be mine. I'm not sure how it came to be this way. It is one of my favorite foods to make when I get the chance--last fall, I won a chili cookoff in the vegetarian category with a white chili that was more soup than chili.

There are few foods that make me feel more restored which is why I think I love it so much. Something about the heat hitting an empty stomach that shocks the body into recognizing being alive and the intense, nearly painful, joy in being fed.

There was the time at Hershey Park with Mim, Abby, and Hannah when we got caught in the rain and wore trash bags in an attempt to stay dry. Mom fed us chicken and rice soup that night and we watched "The Winslow Boy" instead of staying until the park closed.

There was the time at the MIT ballroom competition. After the last latin awards, my van was late in finding us. I had been dancing since early that morning and hadn't eaten lunch and it was near 2pm. Fraleigh let me have some of his tortilla soup. Most of it actually. It was like being run over with a comforting train. My body relaxed and I settled in for a nap.

There was the time as the semester came to a close and I was anxious about the coming year and gloomy from all the rain. Seth made squash soup with chives and rice and almond milk in strange pottery bowls. It was my first meal that day and, as sometimes happens with soup, I nearly cried from happiness. The soup itself made me so happy to be alive, to know that there were good things worth tasting and experiencing.

Strange how one food dish can be all that in just a few sips.

I look forward to this summer and further tries at soup experiments. I look forward to feeding the people who come into Patty's Place with food somehow intended in its nature to restore.

Today's menu: Spiced black bean soup with sour cream and cilantro. Also tasted good on rice.
Response: Anjali gave this soup at 3.5/5 stars but primarily because of its "anti-hindu" beef stock base. Jon Checkan (of Iron Chef: J House fame) gave it 4/5. General consensus was that it would have been better with less broth (I was guessing at some proportions) and less salt. Also: make more. Tripling a recipe for an unknown number of people is a good idea.
Lesson: soup is rarely elegant looking. In fact, it usually looks strange and ugly. But the flavors and texture can be complex and surprising with each repeated bite. And don't add salt when you use a bouillon based stock.

The finished product. Using a favored bowl is always a plus.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

By Wendell Berry: "Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front"

 This time of year is well heard in Wendell Berry's voice. I love this particular listing poem. It commands me to do everything unnatural to me. May we all aspire to be and become mad farmers.

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.
So, friends, every day do something
that won't compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millenium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion - put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth?
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie down in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn't go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

Rain and a Garden and Graduation

It's been a week since I graduated from Penn State. I've changed my blog description. The "signatures" on my emails no longer have "English major candidate." My little brother greeted me after one ceremony with, "Hello, English Nerd."

I felt it to be a profound compliment.

But mostly, life feels the same, other than the heavy dullness that has settled over my unroutined life. I am terrible at maintaining routine without sufficient reason to motivate me. I am without reason or motivation so my life has consisted of watching movie after movie with my sisters this week from "Boy in the Stripped Pajamas" to "Funny Face."

Friday, I returned to State College and Patty's Place and our small summer community. We live small lives together in this Valley during the summers. Meals together, sleeping outside when we can, movies, bottles of wine in the grass on warm nights, shared music and garden spades, wishing each other well in work and work searches. My job(s) for the Hemingway Letters project and the writing center don't begin this coming week but the next, so I have spent the last twenty four hours with friends and a stack of books waist high from the book sale (Side note from reading: Susan Orlean's ability to describe people astonishes me).

But the joy of the day was several hours sitting in the sun that has now disappeared under the threat of an early summer rain (is it summer? Or is it spring still?) with Melanie. We went over the details of life that we have gone over a hundred times before and weeding. Yes, weeding. My housemates Rachel and Sarah have planted vegetables in the small plot behind our house and the vines were threatening there small starts. Parka lent us a spade that he had borrowed from Pastor Ben and we took turns fighting off the roots of an intense vine that had also managed to curl its way around almost every stem of the rose plant (who knew we had a rose plant?). The dirt was like wet and heavy clay after all the rain this past week and we broke it in our fingers, picking out fragments of vine roots that refused to come to us whole.

Perhaps it is cliche. I am very sure it is. Graduating has made me think about growing, specifically "growing up." How things grow, what makes them what they are, how did they come into existence and exist just so. Many important things seemed to have happened accidentally. I became by growing through whatever the earth around me gave to pushes and attempts to move and change. The accidents inspire the most gratitude, somehow.

A garden feels so much like an intentional accident. Green things, once grown, feel inevitable. Maybe its why they are so comforting to be around: with proper attention, they become when we're not watching. An living wonder. The growth of any thing is a wonder. Perhaps "wonder" is what I mean by accident at all. Quiet and astonishing: the smell of dirt caught under my nails and on my clothes and the first breeze of another State College rainstorm.

Graduating is a strange way to mark the passage of time. It was just bizarre. But the passage of time needed to be marked so I will accept the strange gown and cap and medal and the vocab change from "I study English" to "I studied." Graduating: a strange accident, a wonder, with who knows quite what I will become next.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

All Grown Up

Seidle, Me, Zack, Robbie, Foxy, Melanie, Fraleigh, Mooney
Well... maybe. Sometimes, even a graduation can't change very much.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Word Memories

These are for Anjali, who told me to write this post after we both shared memories of the Russians in India. See her version of the prompt at her blog

Prompt: Write Your Memories of Reading Specific Books

Reading "Till We Have Faces" in the old previa mini van on the way to Maine. I was near weeping the entire trip from being so moved by the book. I remember that vacation as my favorite our family ever took together. When I think of Maine, and the changing leaves, and the sunrise from Kadillac mountain, and the bedroom Hannah and I shared with the smooth wood floors, I think of Psyche's mountain.

Reading "The Fellowship of the Ring" for the hundredth time on the way to a piano recital. That may have been my last recital ever. I was so afraid of performing that I read the battle chapters to calm my fears. What is piano to an orc with a battle ax?

Reading "The Return of the King" and crying at the end when Frodo leaves Hobbiton forever and Sam saying, "Well, I'm home," in the months before we almost moved from Hershey to Texas.

Reading "The Brothers Karamazov" on the plane to India and late at night long after I should have gone to sleep. I was fascinated by the characters and was able to follow the plot with an incredible commitment in those humid, fan blown, mosquito netted nights. I did not remember until today that in "The Namesake" by Jhumpa Lahiri, her story begins with a train wreck in India and the man reading Gogol's "The Overcoat" on that train and naming his son after the Russian author. Anjali also has memories of Dostoevsky and India. What is the tie between these two places?

Reading "Pride and Prejudice" from the copy Mrs. Bonfanti gave me as a present through her daughter Liz on my seventh grade birthday. I associate the font in that book with Jane Austen. Probably always will. I will forever be grateful for that gift.

Reading "The Red Ripe Strawberry" on the old couch. Or rather, Mom reading the book to one of my siblings and the distinct way Mom emphasized the sounds in red. ripe. straw. berry.

Reading "The Hobbit" to Gretchen on a plane to Missouri with warm banana muffins and lipton tea.

Reading "Ecclesiastes" in the first snowfall of sophomore year in the woods behind Sunset Park. Those pages in my Bible are still wet from the isolated wet marks of the light snow.

Reading "The Man Born to Be King" and the introductory essay over skype with Daniel and Tim. Something about the light that afternoon stays with me.

Reading "Say You're One of the Them" by Uwem Akpan in the grass outside of Boucke building, feeling like the sun couldn't be quite as bright as it looked, the grass quite as soft, the moment I looked up from the page in terror I couldn't escape when the machete met the head.

 Do any of you have equally vivid memories?

Monday, May 09, 2011

Book Sale/Treasure Hunt at Penn State

It was like the CHAP convention. But smaller. And just full of books, not curriculum.

Or maybe it was the fact that it was in the ag arena that harkened my thoughts back to the old days of wandering around the Farm Show complex with Miriam Eagleson, Rachel Shaver (Sherman), Abby Eagleson, Liz Bonfanti, and Hannah Ray. Remembering the hours spent with Miriam and Rachel looking at and purchasing books (I bought many Jane Austen and Louisa Mae Alcott books there). Remembering wandering into off limits parts of the complex and scaring ourselves with the wide spaces and darkness. Remembering the distinct sound of mothers and fathers discussing the education of children. Remembering listening to Miriam's walkie talkie and the amusing drama of the CHAP board addressing issues among vendors.

Today was nothing like that, not in a reality. But it reminded me.

Every year, someone somewhere hosts a marvelous used book sale at the Penn State ag arena. This is the first year I've heard of it. So I went. I missed the first two days but took the really glorious walk from my apartment out past the football stadium for the 9am opening. Mae Sevick met me there (who had not missed the first two days) and we wandered the aisles on a treasure hunt.

It was more than successful in my eyes, though I can just hear my parents groaning that I already have enough books and that our basement is being taken over by my bookshelf and boxes of unshelved books as it is. But really: what is more irresistable than $.50 books? I found that there is no such thing.

There were some close calls. I almost missed the Rilke tucked between "Left Behind" and "Your Better Life Now". Rilke did not deserve that placement, but I suspect that most perusers of the religious section were not looking for him. "The Man Born to Be King" had a binding I had never seen before and almost slipped through my fingers, as did Kathleen Norris's "Acedia and Me." Oh, and "The Fabric of Faithfulness," also lost in the strange religious section mess. It needed a loving home.

Some books surprised me (I still don't know what attracted me): an essay collection titled "Body", a terrifying children's books about the golem myth. Or "Chronicle of a Death Foretold" by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Two came home in honor of Judy McKelvey [Mac, as she is affectionately known by some students], my faculty marshal for this up and coming graduation: Dante's "Inferno" translated by Pinsky (We studied this book in English 201 "What is Literature". I have loved Dante since.) and Suzan-Lori Park's play "Imperceptible Mutabilities" (Mac introduced us to her essay on the "traditions" which has influenced my understanding of literature and writing since).

Two collections came easily and without surprise: "First Fiction", first published short stories of well known authors and "The World of the Short Story". Yes, Dana loves short stories.

But now that I think about it, maybe this was like the CHAP convention in more ways than memory alone: I was giddy when I picked up a copy of "Writer's INC," my 8th grade writing text book. When I will use this, I don't know. Not looking to be the mother of an 8th grader anytime soon.

Oh well.