bacalhau / cod

Last night we had two friends over for dinner, and I was in charge.

The menu:

I began to search for a way to prepare bacalhau after a Spanish friend brought a dish of red peppers stuffed with salt cod to a dinner party at our apartment a few months ago. The cod in bechamel sauce was a perfect complement to the roasted peppers, and Pedro insisted that "it was the easiest thing in the world to make." Was it? I wasn't convinced.

Though I had seen the sheets of flat, dried fish at La Rosa Fine Foods and other bodegas up here in the Heights, and I'd certainly eaten plenty of bolinhos de bacalhau (cod fritters) during my time in Brazil, I was always a bit intimidated by the raw look of the fillets, and the fact that they required an overnight soak. This fear is somewhat unwarranted, I must admit now that I've made the dish, because soaking salt cod is about as easy as soaking beans, which I do at least once a week.

Leite's Culinaria provided me with the recipe for Bacalhau à Gomes de Sá, but before I was ready to try making it, I wanted to know what it tasted like. A few weeks ago we went to Via Brasil, a Brazilian restaurant near Times Square, and I ordered an uninspiring version of the dish, drenched in too much oil, the fish almost flavorless, the potatoes without seasoning. Yet I suspected that the recipe had the potential to be so much more; it shouldn't be hard to bring out the flavor in the combination of cod, potatoes, and onions -- almost like a tortilla española with some Portugues cod thrown in for variation, ¡a la portuguesa!

My suspicions were correct: made in a large cast-iron skillet in the oven, this version of Bacalhau à Gomes de Sá was just as I had hoped: easy, mellow, and rich. I added a couple of eggs and a few tablespoons of cream to the mix before popping it in the oven, and the result was fantastic!

When I told my mother about my determination to find some use for bacalhau, and my fond memories of Brazilian cod fritters, she responded with her own recollections of the New England version: fried cod cakes that her great-aunts made for her in Maine in the 1950s. I'm not surprised that cod, so strongly linked to the Portuguese-Atlantic trade, has now made its way full circle in my kitchen: from the waters of colonial New England to imperial Portugal; from the Portuguese colonies of the Azores to its crown jewel, Brazil; and from Brazil to New York, Atlantic metropole:

B A C A L H A U is in my blood and on my dinner table.



Since I began to knit again last year, I have found myself drawn to the color of yarn with such intensity that it sometimes startles me. I might spend an hour in a yarn shop staring at the shelves of yarn and pawing at one skein after another before, disappointedly, I admit that I can't find what I want, and won't settle for second-best.

Whence this love-affair with color? I was never the painter in my family; I preferred music and books to drawing and sculpting. Yet, the passion that I feel from color must have come from somewhere, or some time when my eyes were open wide enough to see.

The first time I remember feeling a certain way about color was when we were living in China; I became fascinated by a certain shades of brick orange and dark, deep yellows -- similar to the yellow in this ball of yarn here, the shade of goldenrod.

Perhaps I dreamed of colors because, for the first time in my life, I could not speak or understand what was spoken to me -- or, rarer still, what was written. Chinese characters on store-fronts and roadways might as well have been drawings to me, for that is how I interpreted them. Neurologists believe that, when one part of the brain is injured, other parts learn to function in its stead; a small miracle. But forget lesion -- what happens when a faculty is not injured, but instead rendered useless, as was my ability to speak and interpret speech in China?
There, I spent a humbling half-year deaf and dumb, but enchanted, nonetheless, by the smells and the tastes and the sights -- as if they could make up for my voicelessness. Those colors, like the yellows and green of the clay Buddhas at the Fragrant Hills, find strange parallel in the yellow yarn and green grass of the photos that I took yesterday at the Cloisters.

It took China for someone like me, enamored of languages and other sounds, to let go of words and explanations long enough to start seeing the patterns in front of my own eyes: the gray stones of the old hutong neighborhoods around the Forbidden City; the swirl of rice noodles in beef broth; the swoosh of the Beijing subway as it circled the outer boroughs; and the swinging wicker cages that old men would carry along to "walk" their birds. I sought an older, imagined China, growing more nostalgic for it even as the people around me looked ahead, towards the Olympics that are, now, almost upon us. I looked backwards, towards temples and emperors' gardens and pleasure grounds; they anticipated that the Middle Country would rise again, and prepared for it.

What does all of this have to do with my knitting? I didn't knit in China, and I never saw anyone knitting there, although my mother-in-law says that she used to knit her own sweaters after the Cultural Revolution, when everyone learned to make do. No, knitting doesn't have a lot to do with China, but I believe that color does -- or, at least, it has to do with my version of China, imperfect and fragile and beautiful in its wordlessness. I'm sure that, had I stayed longer and learned more Mandarin, some of the charm of incomprehension would have been lost, and I would have begun to read signs as words, not drawings, and look for a label for every passing sensation. Instead, I remained eyes-open, childlike in my delight and appreciation. Something of this same feeling I have now, when I grasp a yellow ball of yarn, take a strand between my fingers, and cast on for another project.

No words -- just yellow.


Tonight, I walked back home from the Cloisters Museum in Upper Manhattan, and heard the rage of a isla beat from the speakers of passing cars; watched crowds buy treats from the ice cream trucks; and felt the moist, warm air of the city waft between my toes. Spring has come to the island.

The end of a holiday always makes me feel melancholy, like Sunday night when I was a little kid, and knew that I had to go back to school the next day. When I lived in Brazil, I dreaded weekends, because those were the longest, loneliest hours of the week, when the cars cleared out of the city, the shops shut down, and my friends went out of town with their families. As long as the city was busy, its streets filled with noisy buses and office girls, I felt at home amidst the bustle. It was only when the streets cleared, except for the beggars, that I was reminded that I had nowhere to go; that I was a foreigner, and the city was not my own.

This city, New York, is mine, now that we have decided to remain here. And yet today, Memorial Day, I feel a longing for a city and a time that is not my own: strange, because I had such a beautiful weekend, and have only more of such weekends to look forward to as we head into summer: days riding my bike and knitting and reading, nights spent cooking meals for friends and enjoying the lit splendor of the George Washington bridge from our building's rooftop, glass of wine in hand. I love the humidity of New York nights, and the way that the city's restaurants and bars spill out onto the sidewalk, like in Buenos Aires, inviting guests to linger far into the warm nights. I love the summer, and even as it is just begun, wish that it could last a little longer.

Something in me resists change, wanting to hold perfection in my hand, like the poppies frozen in the digital frame. When happiness comes I grab at it, hoping that I can keep it just this one time -- golden moments, like this afternoon spent wandering the paths of Fort Tryon and snapping photos of blooming flowers.

There is a whole genre of poetry devoted to this sentiment, I know: tempus fugit, gather ye rosebuds where ye may, etc. When I read the verses I know that what I am feeling is universal to the human experience; I am not the first to wish for things to remain just as they are. Yet has another generation lived in a world where things recycled themselves with such speed and rigor, I ask myself?

Even that feeling, of living in a tumultuous age, unlike any other, is nothing new: think of Rome at the end of the Empire, or 15th century Spain, when the crops had failed and the New World was just a glimmer, or those anxious years just before the first Great War, when European poets thought that a new era was near, explosive and clean:

Guillaume Apollinaire,

La pétit auto

A commentary on what I understand is another of his poems of the same name, whose text is not available on the internet.

This afternoon, I was not thinking of the French avant-guard as I sat in front of John Rockefeller's castle at the Cloisters, knitting a lace cardigan and trying not to get sunburned. I thinking, in fact, of what to make for dinner, and whether or not I needed to buy anything at La Rosa, and whether or not my favorite Spanish bodega would be open on this holiday. I pictured the salmon that was defrosting on our kitchen counter; and I thought of my father, and mother; and I imagined my husband scoring a goal on the soccer field all the way down in Chinatown, and buying me dried persimmons for me before he caught the subway back up to the Heights. All of these things I thought about -- so much, right here -- as my fingers moved back and forth, and the sun sunk lower over the west bank of the Hudson.



Life is tough.

As the Buddha said, life is suffering.*

I don't want to write about suffering; it may be the stuff of great art, but most of us can agree that we'd rather it stay out of our own lives, thank you very much.

Besides, people suffer in so many ways; Viktor Frankl wrote that even the smallest bit of unhappiness can cloud our entire vision, filling up our lives until we think that that is all that there is. So how can we measure suffering, if it means something so very different to the people struck by the earthquake in Sichuan, to an abandoned child in rural Massachusetts, or to an old woman who has lived with depression for 80 years? What do these forms of suffering have in common, if anything?

But I said I didn't want to write about suffering; heaven knows there's enough of it in the world without me putting in my two cents on the topic! I want to write about happiness, because happiness doesn't always catch our attention the way that sadness does, or anger, or jealousy. While these feelings come to me all too quickly, unbidden, happiness needs to be cultivated. And such work takes time, and care, and purpose.

Cultivation of anything is always purposeful; cultivating happiness requires that we know ourselves (that I know myself), and that we are attentive to our own responses and, sometimes, obey those urges towards happiness. We are beings who want to be happy; it is in our very nature to be so, whether you believe in original blessing or in Buddha nature, and yet so often we put obstacles in the way to our own happiness. My work this year has been to find the light-filled, glistening moments of happiness among the dullness of grad school applications; my 9-to-5 job; a family member's illness; and piles of scientific articles to read and comment upon -- to find those moments, and grab them tightly, noting them to myself and storing their passage in my memory so that I can, I hope, repeat them again.

Among other things, this year I've learned just how much I like to cook, to feed myself and others, and to plan new meals. I've acquired a shelf of fantastic, classic cookbooks and foodbooks: Mastering the Art of French Cooking; A New Way to Cook; The Silver Spoon; 1080 Recipes; Madhur's Jaffrey's World of the East Vegetarian Cooking; the last six months of Gourmet magazine; Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking. Sometimes I read these books before bed, slipping into an infinity of recipes that is similar to the infinity of knitting patterns that I want to make, or the countries that I want to visit, or the novels that I want to read. I want it all -- and I content myself, making do, with one recipe, one happiness, one moment.

Tonight I am going to a friend's apartment in Brooklyn, a friend who wants to learn how to cook (better), and I'm showing her how to make the wonderful garbanzo beans that my husband and I shared a few weeks ago. It's an easy recipe, and sharing it with someone else makes me happy. As I become a better cook, and more confident in my understanding of the way that food works, I like being a cooking teacher, helping another person to demystify the chemistry of the kitchen so that she, too, can eat well. This is all part of my pursuit of happiness today, these one happy moments that follow each other.

Bom apetite!

*The Buddha also said that there is an end to suffering, but that is another story. I don't think that the end of suffering -- nirvana -- is the same as a pursuit of happiness, but maybe those paths will coincide in one way or another...

George Washington Bridge

Who could feel sorry for us living up here in Washington Heights, when we have this for our view only five minutes away, across the bridge? All of Manhattan is in front of us.


Osage orange

Some people thrill to see a blank notebook and dream of all the ways that they can fill it; a new skein of yarn gives me a similar yearning to sketch, design, calculate, and measure for a knitting project.

It is amazing to me that this skein of yarn came to me by way of a dyer in Ohio named Tricia, who hand-dyed over 1000 yards of lace-weight merino for me using only a mordant and natural, plant-based materials. I found her online shop on etsy.com, a sort of sales hub for craftspeople and do-it-yourself fiends.

In this case, osage orange helped create this rich shade of yellow, to which Tricia's photo doesn't do justice. But can any photo ever show the texture and heft of yarn, or the way the threads follow the same contours, giving depth to and contrasting one another? Most people agree that yarn on the hank is prettier than yarn knit up, but that's only a bad thing if you are fooled into thinking that what you see when you buy the yarn is what it will look like knit up into a pattern. As soon as you start knitting, that's the moment of disillusion, when the yarn becomes fabric, and thus is set in its ways -- the moment when you have to stop dreaming of all of the things that the yarn could be, and accept that the raw material has decided on one shape, and one alone. With so many thousands of patterns to choose from, and hundreds of colors, not to mention dozens of types of fiber, knitting brushes with the infinite. And yet every project is a step away from the absolute and towards the ordinary, the flawed, the one.

I think that the desire to keep the idea of the yarn, with its possibilities intact, is behind the tendency that so many knitters have to hoard yarn, often letting years go by before they find the project that is "worth it." This yarn-greed resembles other kinds of greed: the insatiable belly-hunger that no food is rich enough to fill; the hunt for the next sexual partner who turns out to disappoint; or the accumulation of books, CDs, newspaper clippings, recipes, and other cultural objects that one person could never enjoy in his lifetime.

What these desires have in common, I think, is the longing for the absolute: that fall into infinity that opens up before us when we contemplate the bottom of the wine bottle or the last dance before the nightclub closes at daybreak. We want never to stop, those of us with such appetites -- we'd rather fling ourselves up and up and up and keep searching, leaving our options open until the very last minute. Some nights I fall asleep with a knitting pattern in my mind's eyes, or two or three that I play with, switching back and forth between them in my imagination, unable to settle on the one I'll cast on with the next day. That's my sort of hunger now, an acceptable sort when confined to fiber and fabrics; it's a hunger that I can live with, and a far cry from the older sort of appetites that always ended in frustration, and emptiness.

Here's a new idea, one that I've had some luck with lately: choosing the pattern first, and not the yarn. Letting the form dictate the content, so that the pattern calls for its own yarn. In the case of Tricia's lovely osage orange, I bought it with a pattern in mind already, a certain "Bleeding Hearts Stole" from Interweave Knits, spring 2008. I have to admit that it doesn't thrill me as much now as it did when I first saw it, before I had made several other shawls and scarves and such of lace, and learned the gist of the technique -- the spark has dimmed. But the stole is an elegant and serviceable pattern, and will discipline me to stick to the plan that I had in my mind when I purchased the yarn, instead of losing myself in yellow waves and fans and fairy-leaves.



In Brazil, there is a banana candy that is often sold at kiosks, the check-out of convenience stores, and gas stations: the BANANINHA. Bananinha is not much more than dried banana and sugar, but the flavor is about ten times as intense as a super-market variety Cavendish.

When I lived in Brazil, I ate these at least twice a week. I found this bananinha at Búzios, a Brazilian grocery on W. 46th St. between 5th and 6th Avenues, where the owner is a bahiana (for those who do not speak Portuguese, this is not the same thing as a bananinha; bahianas are women from Bahia, a state in Northeastern Brazil; bananinhas are the little banana candies which are the subject of this post).
At Búzios they sell queijo de minas (fresh cheese wheels from Minas Gerais), guaraná (Brazilian soda), dried beans, bikinis, perfumes, and BANANINHA.

It's too good not to eat the whole thing right away.

É bom demais.

All gone.



Soufflé e variazioni

It may not be original (see Orangette's post or her recent article and recipe in Bon Appetit, May 2008) that I have been making so many soufflés lately, but they serve so many purposes:

1) gluten-free dining (I substitute rice flour for wheat flour for the base);
2) fun with eggs (I never cease to be delighted by the many forms that eggs can take);
3) ovo-lacto, vegetarian substitute for meat-heavy main courses;
4) they are something that my Chinese in-laws can recognize as food!

This particular cheese soufflé is Julia Child's recipe from Mastering the Art of French Cooking. For mine, I used Asiago and cabrales cheeses from Westside Market. Since I discovered the
soufflé section in Child's book about a month ago, I've had such fun making all sorts of soufflés: the classic cheese soufflé; spinach soufflé; a soufflé with fresh asparagus from the Union Square greenmarket; rice soufflé from 1080 Recipes; and finally, a sweet one: chocolate soufflé (à la Julia Child).

I actually came to soufflés by way of desserts several months ago, when I realized that a flourless almond cake that I made for a dinner party (whose origin unfortunately escapes me at the moment) used almost exactly the same technique as another flourless cake ("Earth Apple Torte") that arrived in my mailbox one day from the Vegetarian Times, and was a success when I made it for a dinner party some time ago. Given that I can't eat gluten, the technique seemed like genius, using the lift of beaten eggs whites to give body and structure to the cake instead of flour and yeast. Now that I'm working my way through the variations on the theme, I cannot believe that I have gone all of these years without making my own soufflés!

The accompanying wine was Torrontes, from Argentina.


Forty-four miles to Nyack and back

It was threatened to rain on Sunday, despite the sunny skies, and when I left our apartment at 2:30 that afternoon I crossed my fingers and hoped that it wouldn't rain, because that would spoil my plans to do a long bike ride.

What's long to me probably isn't long to most road cyclists -- like two of our friends who came over for dinner on Friday, and impressed us with their stories of weekend century rides with the New York Cycling Club -- but forty-four miles is the furthest that I've gone on my bike this year, and maybe in my entire life! I'm a recent convert to road cycling, and now that I have a decent bike, I am trying to make up for lost time.

Last spring I rode my old Bianchi hybrid to and from my classes at Columbia, taking the greenway down Riverside Park from Washington Heights to Morningside every day. After spending the winter cooped up in our small apartment, I felt like I was coming home again through my rides, falling back into the rhythm of regular physical exertion against the sweep of the Hudson. This spring has felt somewhat similar, in that I cannot get enough of sweating and breathing and being out of doors as much as possible, but this time around I have the proper equipment to really get to know the roads: a Fuji Roubaix RC road bike, circa 2006.

[I'll tell the story of how I got my bike on another occasion; it's a good story and a happy one -- which is what this blog is supposed to be about (happiness, avid and hungry happiness) -- but it can wait. I'm still too excited about the fact that my legs and little bit of carbon can take me 44 miles in a single afternoon, to want to spend time discussing the techie details of my bike!]

On Sunday I rode from Washington Heights, in Upper Manhattan, to the river town of Nyack, New York, taking highways and parkways and neighborhood streets, byways and passways -- a route with just enough variety to keep me interested. In the mornings I usually only have time to do the first part of the route before work, crossing the George Washington Bridge and going down River Road through the Palisades, so whenever I have more time and can go further, it feels like a small adventure. On Sunday it felt like even more of a stretch because I went alone (sans the husband/ride partner), and the roads were almost bare of cyclists by the time I got out of the apartment in the mid-afternoon, so I didn't feel as if I were crossing the same old paths that all the Manhattan cyclists enjoy. The road was mine, and I felt happy just moving and breathing, breathing and moving, settling into the rhythm and speed (yes -- speed!) of my wheels.

What more is there to write about cycling, about my ride on Sunday (or my ride this morning, for that matter)? I've trolled the Interweb for information about road biking, hoping to improve my rides through tricks or training tips, but the minutiae of rpms and "fuel" and power meters leaves me a bit cold, I must say. I've decided that I'd rather ride than read about riding, at least until someone can write about what it means to be free on the bike, what it's like to be a woman out on those roads, sharing space with the cars and the motorcycles, the male cyclists in their trim gear, and the hawks and the thimbleberries. And if no one is writing about these things, then I'll put myself to work.

Any readers?

~Ai Lu


Book of Hours

I wrote the following essay last year, around the first week of May, and I find it captures something of what I like about New York in the spring, so I include it here.

Here in New York, where we never lack for things to do, last weekend I went to both the spring Cherry Blossom Festival at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, and then to the Cloisters Museum in Upper Manhattan, where the Metropolitan Museum of Art houses its most spectacular works of Medieval art. On subsequent days, I alternately joined the throngs under the cherry trees – in what was supposed to be an ecstatic worship of springtime blooms but whose purpose was rather marred by the sheer number of people trampling over the lawns of the Garden and sprawling out among the narcissi and tulips – and walked the intimate stone halls and tidy garden pathways of the medieval museum.

As I mentioned, these were weekend activities, planned for in advance and set aside from the more ordinary chores that I spend my days doing. It is still an effort for me, when there are pages to write and articles to summarize, to let the folders sit under my desk and get myself out, out of the house and out of my small self, to celebrate the few cordoned hours that separate Saturday and Sunday from the rest of the week. But this is exactly what I did last weekend, when I was purposeful about finding the time for these other activities, in hours that stood out from the ordered movement of the rest of the week.

Comparing the cherry blossom festival, which was based on Japanese springtime rituals, and the Cloisters museum, I was struck by certain similarities in the cultures that inspired these events. Pre-1950s Japan and Medieval Europe had notions of time and how to use it that, while not identical, were both certainly very different from our own. To this day in Japan, it is a national event when the cherry blossoms bloom in the spring, bringing hordes of families to the parks and gardens to stand in ecstatic witness under these flowers. The sakura remind us of the transience of human existence; looking at them – really looking at them, we forget other things, caught up in understanding the color of their petals and accepting the soft waft of their fragrance. We cannot do anything except be just who we are, stranded under their boughs, faces upturned like lunatic star-gazers, eating the blooms with our eyes. The cherry tree, in flower, demands nothing more than our attention.

(And yet, the people at the Botanic Garden must have thought that we’d rather put our attention elsewhere, for they hired Japanese punk bands to play all afternoon and set up booths to teach people the fine art of flower arranging. How like Americans to add something more to that which is already perfect!)

The medieval church distinguished between the vita activa and the vita contemplative, life’s highest pursuit. Hear “the cloistered life,” and one thinks of a sheltered existence away from life’s vagaries. But the medieval monasteries were hardly sheltered havens: they hosted pilgrims, cured the poor, copied manuscripts, and took in the treasures of kinds. I suspect that because of the monastery’s intimate involvement in the mundane, its buildings and schedule were purposefully designed to give space to the divine. While dirty pilgrims slept under the pillared cloisters, the chapel nave remained holy space; the monastery marked its days by its prayers, neatly dividing up the waking hours and separating – or integrating – the divine and the commonplace. There were still gardens to weed, patients to attend to, books to copy – but in their proper hour. I saw the material evidence for these schedules in two or three delicate Books of Hours on exhibit at the Cloisters Museum, each a tiny compendium of images and words, an horarium to measure regal hours.

We tend to think of the Middle Ages as a dark time when superstition reigned, human knowledge was scant, and death came easily with plagues and crop failures. But it helps me to remind myself that, whatever else it was or was not, this was a pre-Cartesian age, and that the divisions that we have since learned to place over the world – civilized and barbarous, advanced and primitive, heaven and hell – had not the same power or meaning to the medievals. God was tremendous, yet intimately close – far closer to men and women than after Calvin placed him so far up in the heavens and declared his decisions so intractable, that our actions were, really, almost beside the point. No, the medieval God was found in earth’s very order: in the sacred topography of the monastery and the mount, in the holy rituals that governed daily life, and in the hierarchy of kings and popes, barons and bishops, that were earthly replicas of divine rule.

At the Cloisters Museum, the actual cloistered pathways are held up by pillars dating back to the Middle Ages, artifacts that were carefully transported to the United States by John D. Rockefeller for the creation of the museum. The rest of the museum was built up around them: new arches and bases complemented the medieval columns, while dim cloisters opened up to the open-air gardens planted within. Visitors to the museum, walking under the reconstructed cloisters, are supposed to feel as if they, too, were members of a monastery. The carvings at the tops of the pillars still amaze and frighten us today, as they likely were intended to awe the monks and pilgrims who first saw them: friezes of leafy plants and flowers alternate with open-mouthed monsters devouring hordes of people, bearded men with gaping eyes, and fanciful beasts with too many tails and wings. The imaginarium of the medieval age had as many monsters as our own. Fear and longing have not changed.

But the world has changed, clearly, since the Middle Ages! Nonetheless, the Medievals’ very efforts to create their monasteries and overlay some sort of structure on the day, integrating the sacred with the mundane, is a task with which we Postmoderns still struggle.

My friend Louise opined, while we were talking about Zen mediation one evening last year in Brazil, that meditation has attained its current height of popularity in the U.S. because it is so contrary to our culture’s ideals. People will always seek their opposite when the pendulum shifts too far in one direction or the other, and as we are just about to the hilt with busyness and mayhem, Zen seems one way to calm the chaos in our minds when the world seems outside of our control. My friend is a historian who studies economic history and empires, and tends to work and think like the French historians, in sweeping terms that cover decades at a time and confound or confuse some aspects of human behavior. But I always wonder at movements that go so against the values of the society within which they emerge – the Transcendentalists, for example, in the mid-19th century, or the pilgrims, even, in Restoration England. Closer to us are the hippies of the 1970s, whose legacy, no doubt, has spawned a third American Awakening, the Age of Aquarius turned pragmatic: we now know that meditation calms the mind, yoga strengthens the body, fasting purifies the spirit. We’re too immersed in materialism to not engage in these practices for their immediate, promised benefits, proving that even in these counter-cultural practices Americans are, if anything, far too practical and intentional.

That the tendency to buck the current trend runs strongly through American culture should be no surprise, given that the New England Pilgrims and the Mid-Atlantic Quakers were after the same freedoms. Even today, one thing that seems to distinguish the U.S. from other Western democracies is the intentionality behind all of its subcultures: the Mormons of Utah, the Hasidic Jews of Brooklyn and Washington Heights, the Amish of Pennsylvania, the hippies of Berkeley – the list could go on and on. These groups seek an alternative to the “mainstream” – as if that were one monolith – and it is striking to me that this alternative is so frequently a religious or quasi-religious life, as in the Middle Ages. Even in this hypermanic society, we can find pockets of community and structures of meaning to hold us, just as the Cloisters and their books of hours contained and circumscribed the lives of the faithful.

Considering the cherry blossoms at the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens: why would so many people have appeared that afternoon, if not to mark their own days with a kind of purpose? Spring was flagrant, glimpsed all over the city in flower pots and urban squares, and being human we wanted to participate in it and mark the hours of our own lives. And so we sought out the trees. Not any other Sunday, but this Sunday, the Sunday of the cherry blossoms, when we went out hand-in-hand and were briefly (oh so briefly, as swiftly as those blooms opened and fell) transfixed by pink and white.

These photos were taken by wallyg and Henry Roxas and were accessed on flickr.com on May 10, 2008, by avidalegria. The Book of Hours of Jeanne d'Evreux was taken from the Metropolitan Museum of Art's website.


On rising early

I heard once, perhaps in a sermon in the church where I grew up, that the poet Mary Oliver always rose early, almost ridiculously early, in order to dedicate the first two hours of her day to her writing.

I like the idea of making the first hours of the day my own, when the rest of them are so often occupied by work and school, followed by the evening rush of dinner, conversation, and tidying-up. And these spring dawns are so luxuriously long; I feel as if I have hours of daylight before I have to even think about going to the office.

In the last few weeks, as the semester draws to an end and work becomes more unbearable than usual, I have taken Oliver's advice and began waking up early, for myself, to go outside and see the city and the river and all of the green trees and flowering bushes that I waited all winter for. That way, when I go into work at 8:00am, I know that I've already had my day, the day that is full of whimsical beauty and unexpected encounters, like the coyote or lynx or whatever large, bounding animal it was that crossed my path when I was riding my bike down River Road two mornings ago. It leaped up from the river, not twenty feet in front of me, and scurried up into the wooded hillside. I saw a groundhog that morning, too, and can also report that the wild phlox and white dogwoods are in bloom on the Jersey side of the Hudson.

All of this becomes mine, in the slanted light of early morning, and I am grateful.



Persimmons, or Caqui in Portuguese: I first ate them in Beijing two years ago, when my husband and I were living in a tile-floored apartment in a student neighborhood near Tsinghua University. Once my Mandarin improved enough so that I could understand the prices that the fruit sellers quoted me, I bought them fresh by the half-dozen, and stored them at the back of the refrigerator for late-night feasts.

Cool, glistening orange purses, they reminded me of Lorca's injunction not to eat oranges under the moonlight -- nadie come naranjas bajo la luna llena -- but would the poet have allowed for persimmons instead? They cooled the back of my dust-bitten throat like nothing else.

Tonight, I eat them dried, purchased from one of those Canal Street stores where they sell unusual dried things, like bamboo shoots, abalone, and seaweed. The man who sold them to me didn't speak English, and I didn't remember enough Mandarin to even argue the price with him.