OZY

Not long ago, the lovely, Sarah Manyika, interviewed me for the website, OZY.  I invite you to check it out.

http://www.ozy.com/performance/writing-past-doubt/40272

 

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The Recipe

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Is there really such a thing as a Mardi Gras dinner? There is now!  Here’s the recipe:

40 creative people (writers mostly, w/ a sprinkling of poets & music producers thrown in for good measure)

6 cases of Abita beer (all varieties)

30 bottles of wine

9 gallons of gumbo

1 pot of rice

3 types of collard greens

20 pulled pork sliders

bbq ribs

5 vegetarian dishes

1 dozen crab cakes

1 King Cake from Haydel’s Bakery in New Orleans

Assorted desserts (including but not limited to bread pudding, chocolate whiskey cake, blueberry pie, cheesecake & ice cream)

Assorted beads & masks

1 “shirmp” necklace

1 righteous New Orleans playlist

Combine ingredients for 4 hours and cross your fingers.

All we were missing was a parade.

 

Party of three + one

IMG_0029Nicole was in town a couple weekends ago, and we decided to cap off her visit with dinner at a State Bird Provisions. I mentioned this restaurant in a previous post, and just like last time, I won’t attempt to describe our meal because I won’t do it justice. You simply have to experience this place for yourself. More than the meal, though, what I loved about our evening was my unlikely dinner companion.  You see, we began as a party of three–me, Nicole, and Warrington–who’d gallantly offered to stand in line for two and a half hours before the restaurant opened in order to secure seats at the bar overlooking the kitchen. He thought Nicole, a talented cook herself, might enjoy watching the chefs in action. And so, at nine p.m. we slid onto our stools, book-ending Nicole who sat between us, and proceeded to order drinks and pluck small plates from the trays the waiters were passing around. But because there were three of us and there were four stools at the bar, the one to my right remained vacant for a time.

State Bird Provisions is best experienced with friends. Almost every dish is unexpected and amusing, and at some point, you need to be able to look across the table or down the bar to see your own amazement reflected in someone else’s face. Some of my fondest culinary memories are of visiting a restaurant with friends, each of us ordering a different hours d’oeuvres or entree, then dividing everything into forkfuls. And sometimes, the most pleasurable part of a meal happened after the plates were cleared. It might be the next day, a week or even a month later, and I’d turn to those same friends with whom I’d dined and say, dreamily, “Remember the time we had that . . . . Wasn’t that the best . . . you ever tasted?” and they knew exactly what I was talking about.  Good food shared with good friends; it doesn’t get any better. So you can imagine my surprise when, half an hour or so into our meal, a young guy eased onto the stool beside me.  He ordered a glass of wine, talked to the waiter for a bit, then studied the menu.

I’ve seen plenty of people dining alone in restaurants. They usually bring a book and sit at a quiet table in the corner. And even though I’ve often wondered whether they were perfectly content or desperately lonely, it’s never occurred to me to strike up a conversation. But the guy next to me didn’t have a book. He just sat there, sipping his wine, watching the chefs scurry back and forth, and occasionally glancing down at his menu. And maybe it was because I felt sorry for him, or maybe it was because Nicole and Warrington were deep in conversation, analyzing the mushroom dish we’d just tried, but I decided to talk to him. He was eating one of the dishes we’d ordered earlier.  I asked him how he was enjoying it.

Pretty delicious, he said.  He nodded slowly, and stared at his plate in a way that suggested he was thinking carefully about how the dish was constructed.  He asked me what other dishes I’d order, which had been my favorites. I made some suggestions, then asked if he was eating there for the first time.

Yes, he said, but this was actually his third dinner of the night. He’d already been to two other top restaurants in the city.

Do you live here? I asked.

Turns out, he was in town for the Fancy Food Show. He was a chef, in San Francisco for a few more hours before he flew back to his home town.  I’ll give you one guess where he lived . . .

That’s right.  New Orleans! Wouldn’t you know it??  The moment he said it, I felt my heart bloom. I practically hugged him.

And so, a night that was already really great, got even better. We talked about how much New Orleans was changing. I told him about my little house and he told me where he lived–uptown in the Garden District, not too far from where I stayed last summer. We talked about how the dining scene in New Orleans was booming; so many new restaurants popping up all over town, and I named all the places where I’d eaten–Root, Oxalis, Dominica, Booty’s Street Food, Dominique’s, Magazin, Couchon–and all the ones I look forward to trying the next time I visit. He knew them all, knew the chefs. He even knew where my friend, Suzonne’s, husband works as a bartender uptown. He had an interesting take on New Orleans’ culinary history and shared his opinion about why some chefs will succeed while others will eventually fail. He explained the differences between this new generation of chefs and the old guard; how even in a restaurant like State Bird Provisions, you could tell that philosophy in the kitchen was different. It’s more about the individual, he said, less about the team. He told me how he came to be a chef. He was humble and soft spoken, with an easy manner, an openness, and a warmth that reminded me of so many people I’ve met in Louisiana.

And then it was almost midnight.

Give me a call the next time you’re in town, he said, handing me his card.  We’ll grab a drink and I’ll get you into some of those restaurants you want to try.

That’s a deal, I said.  I introduced him to Warrington and Nicole, and told him I’d love him to meet some of my Louisiana friends. I slipped his card in my wallet and left him sitting at the bar.

So, once again, the Universe showed me some love. I made a new friend, and even as I sat there, I felt myself sprouting another root anchoring me to that strange place I call my second home. And yes, I know I’m mixing metaphors, but I also felt the circle expanding, felt the best aspects of my life colliding and overlapping–which is exactly what should happen. Because it’s not about the taking, it’s about the giving and the sharing. I know this may sound like a heap of bullshit–a little too dreamy, a little too woo-woo, a little too Polyannaish–but it’s what I believe.

An empty stool, a new friend, another layer of connection. Perfect timing.

What kind of life?

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This weekend we attended a memorial service to celebrate the life of a young man who passed earlier this fall.  He was sitting on the balcony railing at his college, telling a friend on the phone how much he was enjoying himself, how happy and proud he felt to have reached this point in his life when he lost his balance and fell backward.  He only fell seven feet, but he suffered head trauma that left him comatose. Two days later he passed away.

The memorial was a sad occasion for all the reasons you’d expect. A life cut short. A family consumed by grief. Hundreds of people gathered to ponder the randomness of it all.  But what I so appreciated about the service, what I’ll think about frequently for days to come, is the way the young man’s family talked about how he lived his life. “He was never embarrassed,” his father said.  “When he got into trouble, it was because he refused to be anything other than true to himself.”  “He wasn’t afraid of anything,” his mother said. “His first word was ‘more.’ He always wanted more of everything.”

Near the end of the service, the minister read the last three stanzas of a Mary Oliver poem. The title is “When Death Comes,” but it’s actually a meditation on life. The whole poem, but especially the last three stanzas, beg us to consider how we spend the time we’re given.  It challenges us to think about what we do with our days, how we want to feel looking back on our lives when the clock finally runs out. There are questions I frequently ask myself. They are the questions that drive me, that push me forward, that inspire me.

I talk a lot on this blog about being awake and open-hearted and taking chances; about the importance of cherishing the people who mean something to us, and the value of staying connected. But what I don’t often say is that I know it’s not easy and I don’t always succeed. Walking the safer path requires less of us, and honestly, sometimes, for a while, it just feels better. The most startling remark the young man’s parents made was that in a way, they were happy their son passed when he did because he left this life on a high note. He had the privilege of living each day passionately and authentically. He never knew the feeling of being ground down. He never had to settle for a life carved by fear. Who knows. Maybe he never would have. But I think there’s a greater chance of that happening as we get older.

I’ve been accused, in the past, of being a dreamer and a romantic, of viewing the world through rose-colored glasses. My dad used to say that I was too impatient. But what I know is that I’ve learned my lesson. I’ve squandered my share of days and let years slip away because I was afraid to dream big and take a chance. I’m not advocating being reckless or irresponsible.  It’s just that I’ve come to believe that sometimes, when we tell ourselves we’re being pragmatic and realistic what we’re really doing is giving up, and that strikes me as the biggest tragedy of all.

The writer, Annie Dillard, is famous for saying, “How we spend our days, is of course, how we spend our lives.” I’d like to think that when my time is up, I’ll look back on everything I’ve done and be pleased. If I have regrets, I hope that it’s because I didn’t get to everything on my list rather than not having a list at all. That I will have lived what my friend, Laura, calls as a “memoir-worthy life.”  This doesn’t mean I’ll have jumped out of a plane, or climbed the highest mountain, or accumulated a house-ful of stuff.  What it does mean, is that like the young man whose memorial I attended, I lived fully and authentically. That I took all this world had to offer, and was always curious to know what waited for me around the bend.

I’m posting the entire poem but you can skip to the last three stanzas, which are in bold.

When Death Comes – A Poem by Mary Oliver

When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps his purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox;

when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering;
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth
tending as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was a bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

~ Mary Oliver ~

Handmade: Lavender Sugar

Raw sugar from Enterprise Plantation, Jeanerette, LA

Raw sugar from Enterprise Plantation, Jeanerette, LA

I spent all of yesterday with my friend, Sarah. She’s in the Bay Area for a few days before she heads up to Seattle where she teaches.  Saturday in San Francisco means a trip to the Ferry Building farmer’s market so I met Sarah at the BART station and we walked over. It was a beautiful day–sunny, but with a chill in the air–and the market was bustling with post-holiday shoppers.

I didn’t go the market with the intention of buying anything. My only desire was to be with my friend–to hear how her life is unfolding, what she imagines for herself in the new year.  And Sarah, who lives in New York, was just as happy to surrender to whimsey. “All I want to do is sit in the sun,” she said, so we decided to wander around for a bit, then buy a cup of coffee for her and tea for me, and find a bench overlooking the bay.  But there was lavender for sale at the first stall we passed–bundles of pale dried stems wrapped in tissue paper, linen sacks of loose buds piled in a galvanized pail–and I couldn’t resist. So I bought a bundle. I would have been happy to bring it home to display just as it was, but I saw that the vendor was selling jars of lavender sugar too.  She asked if I’d like a sample, and of course I said yes.

I always appreciate the products of other peoples’ creativity, but rarely do I see a beautifully woven garment, or a hand carved wooden bowl, or a finely crafted leather good, and say to myself, “I can do that.”  I know better.  I know how many thousands of hours it takes to get good or even decent at something.  I know the commitment required to master ones craft. But when I tasted the lavender sugar, the thought that came to mind was, “I can make this.”  The question was, where could I get the sugar? Then I remembered the bags of raw sugar my friend Peter gave me on a recent visit to Louisiana. We were at his house for a photo shoot and after dinner, Peter gave each guest a paper bag filled with sugar from his family’s sugar mill.

What makes me so happy about my latest culinary project is that it combines so many good memories.  It takes me back to that day in Patouville when, in the company of good friends, I was lucky enough to get a behind-the-scenes look at what goes into making beautiful photographs. A long day of cooking and prepping, arranging and re-arranging to get the perfect shot before the sun slipped behind the cane fields. It reminds of my leisurely day with Sarah. A day spent wandering the city, and cooking together, and never running out of things to talk about. The perfect blend of two perfect days. I’m very grateful for these reminders of how sweet life can be.

My New Year’s Day Wish

Unknown On this first day of the New Year, I find myself thinking about my friends. Any of you who’ve followed the blog know that I’m blessed to have some really fine people in my life. Writing a post that catalogs a bunch of silly resolutions strikes me as frivolous and self-indulgent. So, instead, I’d like to dedicate this post to my friends. You are all so talented and creative, so interesting, and thoughtful, and kind. I am in awe of your minds, and am deeply moved by the generosity of your spirits. I have learned from you, and laughed with you, and carry you with me every day. You have enriched my life in more ways that I can count, and I have done my best to return the favor.

As we look ahead to 2015, a year that promises to be even more interesting, even more of an adventure than the year that just passed, I wish you good health, peace of mind, and fullness of heart.  Most of all, I hope that you continue to live big and dream bigger. Each of you, in your own way, has an eye for beauty, a voracious appetite for life, and I am inspired by your relentless pursuit of it. Continue to be bold and passionate and courageous. And wherever you are–San Francisco or Berkeley, Santa Fe or NYC, Nashville, New Orleans, or Flat Top Mountain, know that I wishing you all good things.

Thank you for everything.