Pasta with (Black) Kale, Caramelized Onions, and Parsnips

The thing about living in Cedar Rapids, Iowa is that there are three choices for grocery shopping and they are all supermarkets (and the three includes WalMart and Target). No Whole Foods. No Trader Joe’s. No local cooperative (unless you drive to Iowa City). Therefore, like many things readily available in other markets, there is no black kale to be had in this town, unless one grows it oneself. Luckily, this recipe is delicious with regular kale!

This is parsnip week at my house, so there will be parsnip and apple soup later in the week. I had never cooked with parsnips as a featured item before making this pasta. I discovered that, like carrots, cooking brings out their sweetness. I also learned that they should cook somewhat longer than the recipe suggests, unless you want them to be crunchy rather than crisp.  If you use this recipe, I recommend not skimping on the seasonings or it tends to be on the bland side. As always, find the full recipe on the recipe tab, above.

Dear Diary: A Response and Reflection

On his blog, “Somber and Dull”*, my friend Randy Greenwald has posted two articles on diaries/journal keeping.  In the second entry, Randy shares thoughts on whether personal diaries or journals can be considered accurate portrayals of the lives of their authors, given the pressures of writing for posterity or self-improvement.  He finishes with this reflection, “My own journal keeping occurs early, early in the morning, when sometimes my soul is as dark as the sky is outside. It’s not necessarily an accurate description of my whole view of life!”

In the past couple of weeks, I have been reading random diary or journal entries I’ve written over the past 30+ years, with the intent of sharing some along with my “Flashback Friday” photos. As I’ve read them, I’ve been struck by several thoughts. Most prevalent is the wish that I had written more detailed content.  Many entries are quite descriptive of my emotional response to specific events, but leave out any facts about the events themselves. At 15 or 25, I apparently believed that the daily occurrences that shook my world were all memorable enough that I would only need access to the momentary emotional condition to bring them back. I clearly had not reckoned with the effects of age and immoderate alcohol consumption in my late adolescence on long-term memory!

Second, as I have looked through the assorted spiral notebooks, bound blank books, and record keeping folios in which my journals are written, I have been struck by the repetitive nature of many of my reflections. It is humbling to realize how the particular challenges of my personality in relationship to the world have been ongoing and relatively unmediated by age, experience, wisdom. In her book, The Work of Craft: An Inquiry Into the Nature of Crafts and Craftsmanship, Carla Needleman says that she used to labor under the illusion that, once she learned something, it was hers forever. But that now she sees that the things worth knowing are difficult to grasp, and must be learned over and over again. (Sorry, I can’t put my hands not the exact quotation, so I’m paraphrasing from memory here.) My journals prove Needleman’s conclusion, by showing that I cycle through the same life issues, relearning the same insights. I like to think of it as an upward spiral, because I do inch along to greater understanding each time. But it is an incremental improvement.

The third thing I’ve discovered in rereading these notes is that I have no difficulty telling the difference between when I was writing from my heart and when I was striking a pose for the benefit of some “future reader”.  I have actually laughed aloud while reading some of my more pretentious entries.

Perhaps the most surprising thing I’ve stumbled upon while reading my journals, though, has been the compassion I feel for my younger, less mature, self. Life happens, and we do our best to stay a step ahead of the tidal wave. Sometimes, we manage pretty well. But at other times, we stumble and get wet as the wave rushes past. I had no clue how to stay out of the water. Writing in my journals has been one way I’ve tried to learn from my missteps. I have often said that I know when I haven’t been writing in my journal because I feel untethered. That the time to reflect is as necessary to my life as taking the time to eat…well, ok, maybe as necessary as taking the time to exercise. I can go days, even weeks, making excuses. But I don’t really feel well without it.

At this point in my life, I find my need to reflect in prose is greater than ever. I write this blog, and keep two journals: one for normal daily reflections, and one in which I write about a specific set of life issues with which I am wrestling. Like my friend, Randy, my tone changes to reflect the moment in which I am writing, and individual entries cannot always be trusted as a true reflection. However, taken as a whole, the disparate parts tell a coherent story of one woman’s life: mine.

*Check out Somber and Dull if you’re interested in a thoughtful, well-reasoned and well-read Christian perspective. The blog’s name is meant to be humorous, and does not reflect the site’s content!

Word Girl Meets Visual World – Finale

A person who forgoes the use of his symbolic skills is never really free.
Mihaly CsikszentmihalyiFlow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, 1990

For my final attempt to fulfill the “Winter Silence” challenge, I decided to return to a medium and technique with which I was already familiar – bead applique.  Now, if you have difficulty imagining me sitting, quietly, for hours on end wielding a needle and thread, you’re probably not alone.  But you’ve probably never seen me around beads.  “Winter Silence” took many hours, and in the week leading up to Art Day I beaded until my fingers bled (from sticking myself with the beading needle when I was so tired I could barely keep my eyes open).

Winter Silence: Third and final piece

While the photos don’t fully capture the final piece (which is framed, making it difficult for a novice like me to photograph), I loved the final product.  Why?  First, because it conveyed the theme without words.  Second, because it does so without being directly representational.  Third, because I envisioned this scene in my mind and the end result is not too different from the original conception.

Imagine show and tell on the second Art Day…each person unveiling their attempt(s) to create something within specific parameters, using a specific set of objects.  Each person brought completely different projects to the table. Stephanie’s son commented that hers looked less like “Winter Silence” than like “Winter Slaps You in the Face”, but I loved seeing them all individually, and their diversity as a set.

We have now had five Art Days.  Each day, each project, has been different.  Each of us is developing a small collection of challenge pieces.  One Art Day was devoted entirely to stained glass projects, Paula’s forte.  The most recent saw us all arrive with so many supplies that they took multiple trips from car to house to get everything into the work room.  We still laugh a lot, and talk, but there is a lot more actual work getting done, too.

So, why have I taken three posts to share the story of Art Day and my recent efforts to explore a more visual form of expression?  On one level, it is a way of honoring the experience and the wonderful women with whom I have shared it.  On another level, though, I want to share an experience I am growing from.  Like many people, I suspect, I am reluctant to try new things unless there is a certain level of success guaranteed. I avoid situations in which I feel or look foolish.  Which, for most of us, is what happens when we try something we’ve never really done before.

Art Day has helped me keep at it, learn how to play without undue emphasis on the end result, to compare and contrast my work with someone else’s without a need for ranking the results. I am learning to communicate in actual images rather than verbal imagery. And the sheer fun and concentrated effort required to create is truly a joyful discovery.  Art, and as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi says in Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, a joyful life “is an individual creation that cannot be copied from a recipe.”  In other words, living life is an art: our time, energy, activity and emotion are the media we have to work with. And in order to live fully, we have to stop waiting for only those things we can do perfectly from the start.  Risking being an amateur or a failure or a fool…that’s how we work our way through to the joy.

Word Girl Meets Visual World – Part 2

The first Art Day dawned cold and clear.  I had arrived at Sue’s the previous night (I live in a different city than the others), in order to be there to greet Steph and Paula when they arrived.  Sue’s craft room, the centerpiece of which is an old science lab table that easily seats four working artists, was lit up and the table’s surface clean, expectant.

Once everyone arrived, we sat down and I immediately realized I had no idea what to do.  In fact, the bag of stuff I brought contained none of the supplies necessary for a coherent project. Besides, what kind of coherent project was I interested or skilled enough to make?  I have, since the 90s, dabbled in beads and bead applique. But I had brought a limited supply of beads and couldn’t seem to think of anything to do with them.  As I looked around at the others, busily playing with their supplies and turning them into lovely objects, I realized that the panicky feeling I had was…performance anxiety.

What if I couldn’t muster enough creativity to craft?

I kept up a steady stream of chatter, telling stories like it was my job.  I hoped no one would notice me floundering.  But let’s face it, we were all sitting at the same table.  There was no hiding my lack of ideas.  Luckily, Sue took pity on me.  She offered to let me steal her supplies and to teach me the appropriate wire wrapping technique to make earrings.  And I happily spent the day putting together multiple pairs, to end up with only one pair worth keeping and wearing.

From most perspectives, the day was a success.  We enjoyed one another’s company immensely, laughed continuously, and everyone left with something to “show” for the time they had devoted.  We also agreed that it had been so wonderful to work with others, rather than hunched over solitary work tables at home, that we needed to do it again.  However, I wasn’t content.  After all, I had dubbed the event “Art Day”, and even though I love those earrings (I’m actually wearing them right now), they seemed too diminutive to live up to the ART in the day’s billing.

Back home, in my drafty little house, I conceived an idea which has enriched the Art Day experience for all involved.  Between Art Days, in order to maintain interest and motivation, what if we had challenge projects to complete and bring to the next Art Day gathering?  I set about creating packets of interesting items: glass pieces, shell discs, starburst sequins, mica flakes, gauze leaves.  Each Art Day participant received a packet with the following instructions:

  • Using the enclosed items, create a piece on the theme, “Winter Silence”;
  • You must use at least one of each item in your piece, however, feel free to alter them if you wish;
  • You may use as many other items, paint, draw, stitch –whatever you wish — as long as your piece contains one of each of the enclosed items.

Everyone agreed to participate in the challenge.  I was excited because the challenge offered me the opportunity to play around at home, away from the eyes of others more experienced in the visual arts, where I could be less performance focused, and more process oriented.  I had a great idea for my piece and set to work with a will.

I hated it.

Winter Silence – Attempt #1: the moment pausing

Ok, I thought, there’s time.  I can try this again.  Well, I didn’t completely hate the second attempt.  But I wasn’t in love with it, either.

Winter Silence: Attempt #2:

Astute observers will note that in both of these attempts, I included words.  I didn’t seem capable of creating a piece that would convey its message in a purely visual form.  And while I like art which uses text elements, I felt that in my case, part of the inner urge to create these pieces was to move away from my wordy comfort zone.  So, I decided, with only a few days until we were to meet at Steph’s house for Art Day Part Deux, to go for attempt #3.

(to be continued…third and final part of this story on Saturday)

Word Girl Meets Visual World – Part 1

Other kids loved art.  Finger painting, coloring, sidewalk chalk.  It was ok.  When I colored, I liked to color hard to get the most vibrant hues.  I never understood those kids who drew lightly with their crayons, filling the space between the lines with pale apricot-ty pastels.  But that was about the sum total of my opinion on arts and crafts time for kids.

Then, in first grade, I discovered words.  Spelling. Vocabulary. And best of all, the art of writing stories.  It was a book, The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew, that rocked my world.  Having been taught to read with the famously boring Dick and Jane readers, I had never understood that storytelling could go where “The Peppers” took me:  into an imaginary world not of my own making.  The rest of that year, Mrs. Burns, my teacher, was constantly yelling at me to stop reading in class.

I’ve been a talker and a writer ever since.

Which isn’t to say that I’ve never appreciated other art forms.  I have always known musicians and artists, even the occasional serious dancer.  My brother Jeff has spent his life as an actor, director, playwright and sometime songwriter. I have been deeply moved by various works and mediums.  But I have primarily remained a spectator, not a participant (except for a brief but disastrous period in which I took classical guitar lessons in college – I still owe the world an apology for that one!).

And then along came Art Day.  While there were many experiences and influences leading up to my foray into the visual arts (namely my siblings Anne and Matt and our dear friend the artistic genius Syndy Ziegenfuss), Art Day seemed to arrive out of the blue.  Here’s how it happened — one November a few years ago, my aunt and cousin invited me to an in-home show and sale of their work, and I took my friend Sue with me. I believe there were five women in that show, and their pieces ranged from jewelry and home decor items to truly stunning works of art, such as Stephanie’s bead mosaics and paintings.  Over hot cider and cookies, I heard myself say to Steph, “We should get together and spend a day working on stuff.  It could be fun.”

Where did that suggestion come from?  Like many times in my life, my mouth seemed to open of its own accord, and out came something completely unexpected…surprising even me.  Stephanie accepted immediately, as did Sue. Within minutes my aunt, Paula, made it clear she did not intend to be left out of the so-called “fun”.  It was only later that Sue and I, probably sipping chai tea in some coffee shop, confessed to thinking the same thought:  Holy crap. What did I just get myself into?

Flash Back Friday

April 1980: celebrating the last days of my freshman year in college.  LaDonna (seated), me with the long pigtails, left to right in back Myrlene, Jane, Lynne.  Picnic as Jane’s house in Key West, IA.  I have not stayed in touch with any of these women, though two joined religious orders (and I believe LaDonna is at Clarke University, our alma mater). I have no idea who snapped the photo.  Sorry, friend!

Comparative Obsession

For many years, I pretty much refused to step on a scale.  What did I weigh at my heaviest?  Who knows?  The highest number I ever saw register on a scale was 352 pounds.  Over the past few years, I’ve thought a lot about my weight.  Sometimes, I have been accused (or pointed the finger at myself) of being obsessed with the scale, my weight, or some other aspect of weight loss. Of allowing my mood to be dictated by my progress or lack of progress. Of always talking about my “weight loss journey”.

Last night, I started thinking about this.  And a thought came into my head that feels right and true – and not only because it lets me off the hook (though that’s a nice side benefit!).

Every day, every minute, of my 352 pound life I was obsessed with my weight.

The thoughts that consumed me were all about this one factor of my life – what I could do/could not do/was too embarrassed to do; what I would eat/would not eat/would never let someone see me eat; what people thought about me/didn’t think about me…there’s an endless list of weight-related items, and I haven’t even gotten to the self-loathing thoughts, the cruel comments of others, the invisibility I had in public as the “elephant” in the room and how those things impacted my obsessive thinking.

Today, I thought about my weight at the following times:  when I got up and stepped on the scale; when I went to the gym and worked with my trainer; at each meal; when I declined the offer of dinner out at a Mexican restaurant because I can’t control myself around the free chips baskets.  And now, as I sit writing the post I will publish on my blog in the morning.

What was happening in between those moments of focus on my weight?  I walked to work just as the sun broke through clouds and I rejoiced to feel light and warmth on my face.  I laughed. I interacted with friends and colleagues. I took the stairs without thinking about it because that’s what I do now: I take the stairs!  In other words, I went happily about my day.

There are whole chunks of time in which I am busy thinking about something other than what I weigh and the complicated mental and emotional underpinnings of being fat and ashamed.  Where I am now, even with the continued focus on losing weight (and the frustration I’m feeling about this last stubborn 60 pounds), is pretty good – and by comparison to my old life, not obsessive at all!

That said, I’m not where I want to be yet.  To get there will require focus and determined effort.  There will be times when it seems, both to myself and to others, that there is only one thing in my life that I care about.  Friends may tire of listening to me talk about it, I may tire of listening to myself talk about it. But this obsession leads to a healthier, happier life, full of opportunities and promise. Seems like a comparatively small price to pay.