simple coconut cake

coconut cake

It’s been a while since I’ve made a cake.

Yesterday, I spoke with my agent about a new book I’ve been working on. It’s the story of a middle-aged woman who becomes obsessed with a suicidal teenager and travels across the country to witness the girl take her own life. But that wasn’t always the story. I gave my agent a collection of stories about women in various states of unraveling–women in cults, women who have been raped, and women who have the arcane ability to speak from the grave. I started the book last year when I first moved to California and I was surprised how quickly I finished a draft. I sent it to my agent and I could practically feel the trepidation in his response. Unbeknownst to me, I was rapidly unraveling and documenting that decent in a new book. I’d soon fall into a depression–a dark country to which I’m frightened to ever return–and my agent told me to take a break, think about the book and come back to him with something other.

It took nearly nine months for me to look at my work and cringe. What I’d been writing was relentlessly dark, I couldn’t bear to read it. I actually had to physically put the manuscript away and breathe. For years, it was easy for me to access that place, to sit in pain and discomfort, to know there would likely be an escape from it. How do you write about light? How do you write happy endings when darkness is the one thing you know. The only thing that’s never abandoned you.

Yesterday my agent wondered aloud about me as a writer before meds and after meds. Am I different, he wondered. Is it harder to write? I said meds gave me perspective, that not being on them made it dangerously easy to access the darker recesses of myself. But reading all of that now, I’m not sure I even want that imbued in my work. I told Matthew that I wanted to write a book that ended with hope. He laughed. Well, that’s a switch.

I’ve got a gut renovation ahead of me, but I’m excited to write my first book with a clearer head.

But back to the cake.

If you’ve been following me along on Instagram, you’ve seen that I moved apartments this week. I left the beach and the apartment that felt like the in-betweens, a place that held some of my most painful memories, and I’m in a home that finally feels like home. I’ve never lived in a space this big. I’ve never had a home office (I’m typing this in my new office!). Counter space was always precarious, something of which I had to artfully negotiate.

I have a new friend coming over tonight and I’m making her a 4-hour bolognese sauce. But this morning I woke and had the urge to bake a cake. I don’t know if it’s the desire for meditation because this week has been painful and stressful beyond measure. I won’t bother talking about the election on this space because I’m too angry to articulate how and what I feel. Baking worked. I pulled together this simple cake and it is INSANELY moist. I will say that since I don’t have a lot of sugar in my diet the frosting was A LOT. I had to scrape it all off to enjoy the cake. But if you love your sugar rush, this piece of heaven will not disappoint.

INGREDIENTS: Recipe from Molly on the Range
For the cake
1 cup sugar
3/4 cup flour (I used gluten-free)
1/2 cup cake flour
3/4 tsp kosher salt
3/4 tsp baking soda
3/4 tsp baking powder
1 large egg
1 cup full-fat coconut milk
1 tbsp lemon juice
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp coconut extract (I used almond as that’s what I had on hand)
1/4 cup coconut oil, melted but not hot

For the frosting
1/2 cup unsalted butter, at room temp
1 cup powdered sugar
1 pinch of kosher salt
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
2 tbsp full-fat coconut milk

For assembly
4 oz unsweetened shredded or flaked coconut
fresh berries, for garnish

DIRECTIONS
This cake is insanely simple. Pre-heat the oven to 350 and grease/line an 8-inch cake pan. Add the first 6 dry ingredients to a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment. In a medium bowl, mix the wet ingredients. Add the wet to the dry with the mix speed on medium. Add the batter to the pan and bake for 25-28 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean.

Let the cake cool in the pan on a rack for 10 minutes. Turn the cake onto a rack and cool completely.

Now on to the frosting. Clean out that stand mixer and beat the butter on medium until creamy (you’re using the paddle attachment, fyi). Reduce the speed to low and slowly add the sugar and beat until combined. Slowly, because you don’t want to get sugar all over your face. Beat in the salt, vanilla, and coconut milk. Frost the cake like a rock star and add that shredded coconut like it’s the last time you’ll ever eat a coconut.

cake + sweet loaf recipes

hello, home

There was a time when I believed that home was simply a place where my mail was forwarded, and the only thing I loved about a house was leaving it. It’s depressing when you think about it–the feeling of not belonging to any one place, of closing a door and still not feeling relief, safe. I used to take pictures of the front doors of my apartment buildings and I’d rattle off a seemingly endless list of addresses. Sometimes I’d confuse the zip codes. Other times I strained to remember what the insides looked like. Did we have carpet? Was there a window in my room? What was the view? In some spaces, I didn’t have a bedroom door, while in others, I didn’t have a bedroom at all. And although I knew being rootless and uncommitted to a zip code was odd, the discomfort I experienced, the feeling of being displaced, is what felt normal. What kept me going was hope, the possibility that this new place could be a home. That I could erase all that had come before.

Yesterday, I asked my leasing agent: Are there trust-funders in this building? People who haven’t worked for what they have?

For most of my twenties, I moved. I lived in Riverdale, the Upper West Side, Little Italy, Battery Park, Chelsea, and two apartments in Park Slope. I shared a one-bedroom apartment with an actor turned psychologist and lived briefly with a man whom I once thought I’d marry. One of my movers was drunk and missing two fingers from his left hand and another broke my bed in four places. A move of 20 blocks in Brooklyn cost me nearly a thousand dollars, to which I responded, are you fucking kidding me? 

Rarely do I host housewarming parties because my homes have always felt so cold, where the possibility of warmth existed if they were torched and burned to the ground.

In earnest, I tried to make a home. I committed to a building in Park Slope for the better part of five years. In this building, I rented an apartment with a spacious deck I rarely used and endured a winter where I wore a coat indoors and used space heaters because the boiler kept breaking. Through all of this, I joked that you’d have to carry me out in a body bag I’d never leave. Who knew I’d swallow my words when a kind doctor swathed my Sophie in two towels and carried her lifeless body down three flights of stairs. The emptiness I felt in what I thought was my home was palpable. I felt the specter of her death and how I contributed to it in every room. I wrapped myself in blankets one night in August and slept on my deck with a bottle of wine because I couldn’t bear the insides. That winter I moved to another apartment one flight down with a new cat and the hope of a new life.

But…I felt unease, a disquiet that loomed larger than the space I’d been occupying. I grew irritated on the subway. I felt smothered in midtown. My home of 39 years had increasingly become a stranger. I no longer felt New York was home. But…keep moving.

It took another mammoth loss to make me realize I wanted something demonstrably different and new. Although I knew it was false comfort, I became tethered to the idea of a new place as a salve–much like what I believed in my childhood. It took moving across the country and away from my comfortable discomfort for me to wake up. The silence was deafening. The noise and maelstrom of New York were no longer a convenient distraction. And after 39 years of perpetual velocity, I collapsed in that quiet. I dealt with old losses and new. I confronted aspects of my character that made me wince. I took a lot of my life offline, reclaiming it. I did the daily work that was sometimes hard and more often rewarding.

I live in a place where I once contemplated taking my own life. I live in a place where my furniture took nearly two months to arrive. I live in a place where I never felt rooted. Ever since I moved in I felt in the betweens. It took me 40 years to realize that I have to be at home with myself before I stretch outward.

But I wanted to move, still. My apartment is highway robbery and it’s not conducive to a home office environment (I sometimes work for seven hours straight and typing on my couch is becoming a problem). Also, there’s too much memory. I wanted a place that reflected where I’m at in my life, not a constant reminder of that which I’ve endured. So I started looking at apartments. I toured a building where it became apparent that someone was shooting an adult film (the Yelp reviews confirmed this). I visited another where it felt I’d have to send out proof of life photos I was so far from life.

Then I found my home in an area of which I’m not familiar–Hancock Park. I looked at four apartments, and while the property was GORGEOUS and perfect, I felt meh about the spaces I’d seen. But before I left, my leasing agent became aware of an available space he hadn’t shown me. We rode the elevator to the top floor and we walked into the space that next month will be my new home.

I fell in love. The apartment is perfect for a true home office. It’s at the corner end of the building so it’s extremely quiet (a necessity for me since I’ve lived in buildings where people mistook an apartment complex for a drug-fueled rave). There are spaces I can use as a defacto office or lounge, and the location was walking distance (1/4 mile) to supermarkets, drug stores, dry cleaners and all the necessities.

I went through a lot this year, more than I wanted to bear. This wasn’t what I expected from turning 40. This wasn’t what I expected when I moved to Los Angeles. But for the first time in a long time, I feel at home with myself, flaws and all. Someone asked me recently what being on anti-depressants was like, and I said, it’s the difference between waking up and thinking this is all too much to waking up and thinking, okay, this is tough but it’s manageable. It’s the difference between succumbing and conquering. Most importantly, it’s the difference between hopelessness and hope, the feeling that your body is no longer a home you want to torch and burn to the ground.

People use the phrase of wanting to match their insides to their outsides, and I understand this now to an extent. I look at myself and that new space and realize both need work, but at least we’re starting from common, hopeful ground.

lovely living

playing camp in california: snapshots from an empty home, but a full heart

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I’m writing to you from the floor. My first week in California has been exhilarating and extraordinary, even if I’m taking conference calls from the carpet and using aluminum foil as a dinner plate. As of right now my furniture is still in a warehouse in New York, and I’m trying this new thing where I don’t flip out when things don’t go according to plan because it takes more energy to be a screaming asshole than it is to resolve situations with grace and calm. I spent the morning talking to the very kind and helpful head of sales at Shlepper’s and I’m hopeful that my furniture will arrive within the next week. But given how beautiful my apartment is, I’m thinking my situation is more like glamping with an added benefit of Some Assembly Required. I’m thankful for Taskrabbit since assembling furniture is a skill that eludes me. Part of me is strangely happy to be living so minimally and save my books, I kind of dread the 49 boxes that will soon find their way home.

“I was never a fan of people who don’t leave home…It just seems part of your duty in life.” –Joan Didion

Someone recently asked me what it’s like living in California, to which I responded, I don’t know, really. It’s only been a week. All I have are vague, strong impressions–kind of like skywriting–that I’m sure will fade and morph into something tangible, real. Perhaps I’ll have a better answer in six month’s time. But right now I know that the light here is clean, that I’ve been starved for common courtesy and decency–characteristics that are the stock and trade of most Californians, or at least the ones I’ve encountered so far. I know I’ll have to get a car at some point, but it’s been nice walking the four miles to Brentwood. I finally know what it’s like to have a good avocado and a ripe white peach. What it’s like to eat healthy–all. the. time. I know what it’s like to sit next to a group of people and have them fold you into their conversation so soon your two tables become one. I know what it’s like to wake to quiet; I live by the beach and it feels good to be close to water. I wrote someone this week, I’m never coming back.

Santa Monica

This week I’ve been the happiest I’ve ever been and the most frightened I’ve ever been. By definition, everything is new to me, and all the things I’ve taken for granted–close friends, a strong professional network, and my family, all close by–I realize I have to, in some way, rebuild. I’m painfully shy but I’ve thrown myself into Facebook groups, scheduled “friend dates” with friends of friends (vetted strangers, really), and reconnected with people from a former life–people I used to know. There’s a lit scene here and I’m nervous about navigating it (although I’m admittedly curious). It’s hard making friends when you’re over a certain age since people are settled, but I hope to find my way here. Build my tribe.

I wake to a pile of email from the East Coast, which alters the shape of my days. But mostly I wake, shell-shocked. I live in California. At one point I’ll have to get a license and drive a car (not sure how I’ll afford one, but I’ll cross that bridge…) I wonder if I’ll be lonely. I wonder if I’ll find project work. I wonder what I’ll write on this space. I wonder when my furniture will arrive so I’ll no longer have to take my meals and calls from the floor.

Everything: I’m working on it.

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cross-country move

it's really happening: preparing for a cross-country move (part 1)

Photo Credit: Death to the Stock Photo
Photo Credit: Death to the Stock Photo

So….BIG NEWS.

I submitted my first application for an apartment in Los Angeles and the realization of this has me anxious. I’m a bit of a control freak so I tend to react to uncertainty by managing the certainty. Moving doesn’t feel real until you commit to an application process, background, credit, and reference checks, and it occurs to me that I’ll be moving in nearly two months. I’m excited but frightened all at once, so I spent the whole of this morning in organization mode. I made lists, organized links and wrote this post because the unknown feels a lot less daunting when you can break it down into small, manageable tasks.

While I don’t have my new address as of yet (I mean, I haven’t even been approved!), I’m putting planning into motion, and I’ll share my journey and mishaps along the way. It’s taken me a month to thoroughly research apartments and management companies from the other side of the country, and while it’s been a challenging, frustrating process (how much stock should one place on Yelp reviews?! Eternal questions), it’s been an auspicious one.

Today I’m sharing some of my preliminary thoughts and ideas, but I’ll pop in over the course of the next three months with details, mini breakdowns (I’m certain they’re imminent), and lessons learned.

Apartment Search: Without a doubt, the best investment I made was a six-month membership ($120) to Westside Rentals, which is basically an organized, vetted Craigslist. Their database of broker-free available properties is exhaustive, and you can set-up and save different searches based on price, amenities, location, etc. For me, WSR was a launch pad to extensively research and compare properties and management companies. I’m also using Hotpads (cool interactive map + visuals), Apartments.com, Zillow, Apartment List, and Trulia. As you might have guessed, I like options.

However, what’s been most interesting to me over the course of my research is defining the kind of home I want and my non-negotiables. Living in New York my whole life, I’ve always felt bound to what I could afford because space and location come at such a premium. Never did I conceive of living in a apartment that had a washer/dryer or ample closet space. (I realize saying this demonstrates my privilege, and I’m grateful for choice.) I’ve only once lived in a doorman building and that was because I was splitting rent with my then significant other. Browsing WSR’s options (bungalows, guest homes, homes, apartment complexes, lofts), I initially started with an open-ended search and a month later winnowed down to a few properties based on my desired requirements: elevator building, in-unit washer/dryer, dishwasher, ample kitchen space/cabinets, underground parking, and concierge for packages. Since I’m able to deduct a third of my rent for purposes of a home office, I’m considering properties that might have previously been out of my price range. I’m home for most of the day, space, solitude and convenience are important to me.

Also, if you’re moving with a pet, check the pet policies. I’ve been noticing pet rents and pet deposits on a lot of buildings, so read the fine print and ask questions before signing a lease.

Bottom line: Determine your needs based on your lifestyle and income. Be realistic about what you can afford and speak with your accountant about your monthly net income, expenses, any possible deductions, and your budget.

Moving/Movers: Believe me when I say that I’ve spent most of my life in New York as a nomad. There was a time when I moved apartments every year, and I’ve hired everyone from drunk men who broke my furniture to professional movers who ripped me off and held my belongings hostage. Most recently, I’ve used Flat Rate and Schleppers, and have been extremely pleased with the care they exhibit with my furniture and the speed and professionalism of the experience. Many of my friends who’ve moved cross-country have recommended Flat Rate, Charles Wood & Son Moving, and Oz Moving & Storage. I’m also looking into PODS. I’ve yet to make a decision since I haven’t closed on apartment and I need to inventory my apartment, but I’ll let you know who I pick and the cost. Many of my bookish friends have recommended that it’s cheaper to ship my books via Fedex since most companies charge by pound–I’ll look into that, as well.

I’ve learned that it’s smart to book my company a month in advance of my move and know that there might be chance I’ll be without furniture for two weeks. Know that I’ll be shipping my air mattress to Los Angeles as a precaution.

Bottom Line: Move only that which you need (because who wants to pay to move anything that doesn’t bring you joy?), do your research on moving companies, and book in advance. Also, check in with your new home/management company regarding any regulations with regard to movers.

felix, my special guy

Moving my Special Guy: As you can imagine, I get apoplectic when it comes to Felix. I LOVE HIM SO MUCH. As such, I’m admittedly melodramatic on the level of telenovela. I might have mentioned this, but during the first year of Felix’s life he was abandoned three times. As a result, he gets really upset when I leave for long periods of time or if I get him into a carrier. When I moved apartments a year ago, you can’t even fathom his level of hysteria. Knowing that taking him across the country will be an ordeal, I plan on booking my vet appointment a month before I move while securing calming meds (which I’ll test prior so as to ensure he doesn’t get anxious). I’ve purchased this TSA-approved carrier and I plan on purchasing a one-way, first class ticket on Virgin America, THE pet-friendly airline.

Everyone tells me that at a certain altitude, Felix will konk out, and his body will be in fight/flight mode so he won’t eat or go to the bathroom for the duration of our travel experience. I just know that the trip to and from the airport–especially navigating airport security, for which I’m purchasing a harness should they want him out of the carrier–will be a fucking nightmare. Friends have also suggested that in the few weeks before departure I leave out the carrier and take him for short trips around the block so he gets used to being transported.

Bottom Line: If you’re like me and treat your pet as if it were your child, talk to your vet about all the ways in which you can transport your pet. From stress-reducing pheromone sprays to outfitting your pet with a calming collar to doping yourself and your pet (kidding, well, maybe), do the research and plan so your travel experience is as calming as it could possibly be.

Change of Address: Luckily, you can change your address online and it’s super simple. Since I pay most of my bills online, updating magazine subscriptions, credit cards, Netflix (yes, I still get DVDs–I’m 39), debit cards, student loans, cell phone, and frequently-patroned retailers (for me, Amazon) is a cinch and takes me an hour once I’m in a groove. I’ve made a list of every vendor requiring an update, along with their site link/phone number.

Speak to your accountant to forms you’ll need to complete re: your move (example). I’ll also be completing change of residence forms with the DMV. If you have health insurance, you’re able to change your plan should you move out of state. I’ve Oxford, and I’ll be completing this form to un-enroll due to a life change and will select new providers/plan under California’s insurance exchange. This seems complicated, but I’ll let you know how it goes come September.

Bottom Line: Make a detailed list of every vendor that sends you mail or notices via email. Secure your username/passwords, and spend an afternoon making all of the address changes in one shot. I also plan on sending my closest friends an email with my new contact information.

Miscellaneous Logistics: Know that I’ve made an exhaustive list of all the little things I have to take care of before I leave New York, which includes: ordering a year’s supply of contact lenses, finalizing all of my dental work, getting my annual physical, GYN and mammogram before I have to switch carriers, cancel my safety deposit box membership, purchase new furniture (I’m getting this new couch and rug), repair any furniture that requires attention before my move, comb through all my paper documents and shred anything I don’t need, take another sweep of my books, clothes and posessions to see if there’s anything left to donate/give away, update my W9 forms with ongoing clients, give notice on my existing apartment come July, close out my NY-related utility bills and connect with my leasing office on utility/internet activation.

I’m sure there are dozens of things I’m probably missing, however, I have a notebook where I’ve been tracking anything that comes to mind, noting the kinds of mail I’ve been receiving (as I typed this I saw a Netflix DVD and took that down as a COA!)

Bottom Line: Plan as early as possible and know that nothing is too small in terms of logistics. Map what you need to do along with dates and any milestones you’ll need in order to get you where you need to go.

Photo Credit: Death to the Stock Photo
Photo Credit: Death to the Stock Photo
cross-country move

the long, winding journey to the middle

Photo Credit: By Sébastien Marchand
Photo Credit: By Sébastien Marchand

There was a time when, if you wanted to see someone, you had to pick up a phone, write a letter, or ring a bell. That was the time, I say and my father nods in tacit agreement. We laugh because this is what happens when you arrive at the middle of your life–you look back on the life you never appreciated while you were living it, and you recast it in sepia. You become a revisionist, a tawdry romantic. You forever remember your life as simple, even when it was everything but, even when your days amounted to you taking cover from ferocious storms that passed swiftly. When victory meant climbing out from under gravel and rock, in-tact. Still, you’re tender with your memories because that which you once considered life-altering–the manufactured dramas, the heart that swelled and broke, the incalculable losses–no longer bears the weight you once ascribed. Their intensity diminishes with time, for the fact that have lived. What you once considered large becomes diminutive simply because these are days you’ve endured.

You think Natalie Merchant was right, these are days you remember.

Over lunch I tell a friend that I’m in the betweens. I feel the years, all of them, but I don’t. When you’re young, you consider 40 old (ask any child and they’re certain to make allusions to your imminent mummification), but a certain calm accompanies this perception because all that you don’t know will be resolved by the years. The empty will be made whole, you’re certain of it. Until you reach the middle of your life and realize that resolutions are only met with more questions. The simple becomes a cipher and you spend your days saddled with riddles.

I take a meal with a woman in her 20s who’s astonished over the fact that I still have questions, that I haven’t “figured it all out” when it comes to my career. How do I explain that in the same breath I have it all figured out but I’m not close to figuring it out? That I’m able to reconcile what matters to me but that knowledge doesn’t magically reveal what’s next. It took time to unload all the weight I’d been carrying–the weight of my generation and the expectations of meeting markers by specific age thresholds (married by 30, 2.5 children, house, career, the whole nine) and realizing that I didn’t want what had been prescribed for me–and how do I explain that I’ve merely traded in one bag for another, and the contents of each are demonstrably different?

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IMG_1670IMG1231A

So I looked up this Santa Monica on the Google, and you’ll be happy to know that there is a Starbucks and a Coffee Bean, my father says, satisfied. I worry that he’ll be worried. Somehow I won’t feel right about leaving if he doesn’t give me his blessing, even if I’m too old for it, even if I don’t technically need it. But I’ve come to realize that his assurance is something I need, and I laugh when he measures the weight of this decision by the proximity of coffee shops. (He doesn’t, really. My pop, like me, needs a non-threatening opener, something that won’t ripple the waters, as it were. We need to take it slow–there’s no other way.)

The coffee, I understand, is my dad’s way in.

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.
From T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland”

We spend two hours in a car in front of the water, and I tell my pop I’m frightened. I’ll have to re-learn how to drive (so, you’ll learn); I’ll have to consider work (aren’t you already worried about that here? How is it any different there?); there will be times I will fly into New York and not have a home to go home to (home is in your heart, you know this, not where you lay your head down to rest). He says, of course you’re afraid.

In Spain, there are barnacles that are as expensive as caviar. This isn’t the sort of fish that’s affixed to rocks and certain ships, rather these crustaceans can only be found out in the deep, in the rolicking seas, and the princely sum we pay is insurance for the man who risks his life to harvest what we eat. I describe the way barnacles feed, their spindly legs and unhealthy attachments. We’re by the water now, and he inquires about the barnacles. Where are they? I point to rotten wood and the barnacles the blanket the surface.

What I don’t say is that I’ve been attaching myself to that which has only sustained. I’m taking what I can get.

My pop and I discuss probability, how he’ll likely board a plane to visit me in California than navigate a car to Brooklyn. Last night I walk along a street where I’ve walked over 25 ago, and I think about the girl then and the woman now and I’m trying to reconcile the two (a shadow behind you, a shadow rising up to greet you).

But it’s hard because the woman who grew up in Brooklyn is so foreign to the woman leaving it, and I can’t explain the sadness I feel being in between, over, under, around, beyond, the two.

This is what happens when you reach the middle of your life. You fold the terrific photographs of you from a former life, that young face washed in sepia, into a box. You preserve it. You care for it. You sometimes open the box and pore through its contents. You hold up your former self to the light. You practice nostalgia like sermon, like song. Then you realize that there are boxes left to fill. You realize that you are halfway toward the end of your life and you desire color. You need shadows under red rocks. You need new questions. You need new photographs. You need the life beyond the photo. You need to hold the still-beating heart in your hands. You need to breathe.

Update: I just listened to Isabel Allende’s talk on living passionately, regardless of age, and it was so fitting for this post and wholly illuminating.

the gathering kind

tell them stories

Death the Stock Photo
You can copy me, make a portrait as precise as an artist, but my shit will always remain mine, and yours will be yours. Ah, Lenu, what happens to us all, we’re like pipes when the water freezes, what a terrible thing a dissatisfied mind is. You remember what we did with my wedding picture? I want to continue on that path. The day will come when I reduce myself to a diagram. I’ll become a perforated tape and you won’t find me anymore. –From Elena Ferrante’s Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay

You’ll hear sort of a strange sound, the dentist tells me. He says not to worry (I worry), this is what you hear when metal breaks metal. We’re here to excavate, to break things in your mouth and put them back to together again. He shines a white light over my molars and this puts me to thinking of fireflies and I imagine a colony of them fluttering out of my mouth and out the window. This is where my mind goes when two faces are an inch from mine, and the only words exchanged are the names of the various tools entering and leaving my gaped mouth. The word suction is used a lot and I think about how much I loathe the mollusk. After, the dentist starts to talk about the strategy for my teeth because there’s so much decay. Part of the strategy centers around containment. We will drill and plunge metal into the open spaces in your mouth until your jaw shakes because once the decay hits the nerve, we’ve got a whole new strategy, a host of new words and technical procedures to deploy. While I work in marketing and often use words like “strategy” and “tactics,” for some reason, hearing them in the dentist’s office disturbs me.

Half of my face is numb, and beyond the costly nature of these procedures, I keep thinking that my mouth is an abattoir, which could either mean that I’m one who harbors the remains of things (there is constant death in this house. Do you smell it? Do you feel it rise up around you?) or one who’s about to face a series of endings (the house where we extinguish all the lights; last call! last call!).

Smoke came out of my mouth. And bits of metal. The numbness recedes and there is only this dull, persistent ache. The drugs don’t work, I don’t know why I keep taking them–habit, I guess. I nap, send emails, and laugh over the fact that nearly 30,000 people read a post that took me thirty minutes to write but I can’t sell a novel that took two years of my life because it’s too dark, too hard, and didn’t you know, kid, we’re in the business of easy. We’re in the business of from manuscript to bookshelf. We like our corners neat, characters that color in and around the lines.

No one likes sociopaths, characters that create new coloring books instead of dancing for show in the old ones. Readers are puppeteers, they need to pull all the strings and they want their redemption stories. They want to close their books or shut their screens knowing that the story they’ve just read came to its natural conclusion; we’re done with that dirty business now. We can set the story aside knowing that the world has been magically set to rights. Even when we know that people are far from neat–they are untidy, sometimes melancholy or shamelessly cruel–and endings are rarely, if ever, clean and natural.

May I point out something? You always use true and truthfully, when you speak and when you write. Or you say: unexpectedly. But when do people ever speak truthfully and when do things ever happen unexpectedly? You know better than I that it’s all a fraud and that one thing follows another and then another. I don’t do anything truthfully anymore, Lenu. And I’ve learned to pay attention to things. Only idiots believe that they happen unexpectedly. –Lila, in Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay

Two years ago I started a novel about broken children, a brother and sister come undone as a result of two generations of parents who weren’t adept at familial love. I wrote about a complicated relationship between a mother and daughter, one more artfully conceived that the one I portrayed in my non-fiction, because while time takes it all away it also gives you depth and perspective. At the opening of the novel, we learn that the mother dies of terminal cancer, and the daughter flees herself and her surroundings. There are many journeys west because everyone knows that the east has fallen to blight, it’s its own self-contained ruin.

How could I know that fiction would breed fact, and I would learn that my mother is indeed dying in the same space in time where I’ve planned a move out west? How could I have known that I’d write my way here? I will never say or write more than the two lines I’ve just written–I’m choosing to deal with this privately, but right now, right this moment I feel empty.

As the dentist is about to drill I say that I’m a compulsive flosser, and he tells me that there is a hole in my tooth and there are some things I can’t get to. Places that are hollow and empty. And now, I feel the weight of that emptiness, wondering if it’s possible to feel so the burden of loss yet feel nothing all at once? I often return to Joan Didion and her line, we tell stories in order to live, and I believe that, wholly, but what if we don’t yet know the shape of our own story. What if we wrote our way to one place and all we want to do is write our way to another? I wrote a novel I loved, completely, and now I can’t even bear to read it. My agent forwards me long emails from editors quoting lines from my book, talking about the “brilliance of the prose” and whatever, and all I could do is stand in the middle of the street, cold, and say that I want to write another book. Maybe I’ll go to Europe instead of out west. How do I tell him that I feel nothing?

When I was small I had a teacher, Dr. Wasserman, who read all the stories I wrote on sheets of loose-leaf paper and urged me to read them aloud. Tell them stories. Make them listen. Everything they want to hear. Give them animal, mineral, wood, brick and lye. Here is my life. You own it all, it’s yours. And the days climb over one another, clobbering and competing, and memory is ephemeral, fleeting. You remember how a certain wine tasted or how it felt when he laid his chin on your shoulder and left it there. You remember a day spent with a dear friend and two forks diving into a single plate. And you fight hard to keep these images in the frame because soon they’ll be eclipsed by things you don’t want to see, voices you don’t want to hear, words you don’t want to read. How did you keep the light in the picture?

All my friends want to meet for coffee or dinner and want me to tell them my story of moving out west or whatever it is I plan to do. All these editors, who won’t bid on the dark, write they can’t wait for new stories from me, all! that! light!

I don’t know where I’ll go. I’m writing my way around myself, talking in circles, about what will instead of what is. Because right now things are messy, untidy, and dark and people squirm around in that. There is an expiration date for how much disquiet one could write, or this is this expectation that we can exchange grief: here is my sad story and now I’ll hear yours because it’s fair that way. So I give them and everyone what they want to hear, speaking in exclamation points, and use this space, and private spaces, for myself. To tell the stories that are really happening. Stories that are incomplete, of a life not foretold.

I do know this. I’m in the business of leaving, and although I have no idea how I will sort out all the logistics, part of me can’t wait to board a plane to who knows where to do who knows what. I’ll tell those stories then, when they happen. When I’m ready.

Photo Credit: Death to the Stock Photo.

the gathering kind

mujaddara: spiced lentils + rice with fried onions

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Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about ties the bind, the power of female friendships. For most of my childhood I lived in the confines of my imagination. I devoured books at an unusual pace, and assumed a small role in every story I read. Mostly I immersed myself in a succession of books about blonde girls with credit cards. They drove fast cars, wore silk blouses, and lived in houses with two floors. Panic was breaking curfew. Tragedy was selling the pearls and the minks. Forced to wear cotton and bow out of boarding school, the blondes pressed their hair, frantic, and wondered how they’ll live and whether they’d be found out. But in the end, the stock market never crashed, money mysteriously appeared, and everything had been set to rights. The blonde girls’ lives were a power ballad played on repeat.

I grew up in a place where endings weren’t tidy and happy, rather happiness was simply the fact that could endure the hand dealt to you. Escape was tantamount, and I sought refuge in the seemingly uncomplicated pristine worlds of the affluent and privileged.

Since I was alone a lot, and often teased and picked-on for most of my childhood, books were my companion. On the occasions I had friends, I was clingy, possessive and idolatrous. I was jealous and insecure. Frightened of abandonment, I imagined my friend as a life raft and I was hanging on for dear life. I typically had a single friend, one who rose above the din, and I would fixate all my energy on her. People used to call me intense, ferocious, because nothing existed outside the confines of my friendship. And anyone who threatened that friendship–a new friend, a boy distraction–became objects for me to conquer and ruin. It’s funny–I’m reading Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, and I deeply identified with Elena and her fixation on her fractured, yet brilliant friend, Lila. I always befriended girls who were strong-willed, beautiful, and admired because I thought proximity to people who didn’t only shine, but glared and burned, would somehow rub off on me. That I would be the one who would inevitably burn bright.

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Suffice it to say, I didn’t know how to be a good friend. It wasn’t until S and I parted ways that I finally understood the meaning of unhealthy attachments. That it was perfectly normal to have more than one friend. That it’s okay to grow past the notion of having a “best friend.” That I didn’t need to be a barnacle. That I didn’t need to be surrounded by a crowd, rather it became natural for me to float amongst a few. That I didn’t need for my friends to meet my every need and desire. That I didn’t define the strength of a friendship in relationship to the frequency and intensity of our encounters.

This week I read an article about how women of a certain age get surgical about the people in their life. They crave fewer friends, and work to enrichen the ties that bind them a smaller number of people. I’ve written at length about my desire to have fewer people in my life. As I’ve grown older, I’ve become comfortable with solitude–I actually need to spend time by myself because I become drained when surroundeded by people for extended periods of time. I need space and quiet to think, and that, coupled with a considerable amount of professional obligations, doesn’t leave much time for people in my life.

So I had to get surgical. I’m disciplined about the people with whom I surround myself. I’ve a handful of very close friends whom I see pretty regularly, as well as a host of acquaintances whom I see less frequently. However, I’m starting to realize that with my pending move I’ll be separated from the people I love. And while I’m not at all concerned about my beloveds and losing them (friendship, real friendship, extends beyond the confines of a zip code), I’m actually worried about meeting new people.

I’ll be honest–new people exhaust me. I’m an introvert who spent a decade cultivating incredible people in my life, and the very idea of having to rebuild makes me anxious. I keep telling myself that one or two people are all I need to stop me from going bonkers in another state (because even I have limits to how much time I can spend alone), and part of me feels grateful for the online space because it’s allowed me to connect with people I’d otherwise never encounter. So I’m building these friendships slowly, virtually. One or two people at a time, in each state, as that’s all I can manage. In a weird way, I feel part of me has reverted back to my childhood, where I’d fill out pages in “friendship books,” mail them to a pen-pal in hopes that I’d meet a couple of new people.

New people. I’m still anxious.

INGREDIENTS: Recipe from Jerusalem: A Cookbook
1 1/4 cups/250 g green or brown lentils
4 medium onions (1 1/2 lb/700 g before peeling)
3 tbsp all-purpose flour
about 1 cup/250 ml sunflower oil
2 tsp cumin seeds
1 1/2 tbsp coriander seeds
1 cup/200 g basmati rice
2 tbsp olive oil
1/2 tsp ground turmeric
1 1/2 tsp ground allspice
1 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp sugar
1 1/2 cups/350 ml water
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

DIRECTIONS
Place the lentils in a small saucepan, cover with plenty of water, bring to a boil, and cook for 12 to 15 minutes, until the lentils have softened but still have a little bite. Drain and set aside.

Peel the onions and slice thinly. Place on a large flat plate, sprinkle with the flour and 1 teaspoon salt, and mix well with your hands. Heat the sunflower oil in a medium heavy-bottomed saucepan placed over high heat. Make sure the oil is hot by throwing in a small piece of onion; it should sizzle vigorously. Reduce the heat to medium-high and carefully (it may spit!) add one-third of the sliced onion. Fry for 5 to 7 minutes, stirring occasionally with a slotted spoon, until the onion takes on a nice golden brown color and turns crispy (adjust the temperature so the onion doesn’t fry too quickly and burn). Use the spoon to transfer the onion to a colander lined with paper towels and sprinkle with a little more salt. Do the same with the other two batches of onion; add a little extra oil if needed.

Wipe the saucepan in which you fried the onion clean and put in the cumin and coriander seeds. Place over medium heat and toast the seeds for a minute or two. Add the rice, olive oil, turmeric, allspice, cinnamon, sugar, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and plenty of black pepper. Stir to coat the rice with the oil and then add the cooked lentils and the water. Bring to a boil, cover with a lid, and simmer over very low heat for 15 minutes.

Remove from the heat, lift off the lid, and quickly cover the pan with a clean tea towel. Seal tightly with the lid and set aside for 10 minutes.

Finally, add half the fried onion to the rice and lentils and stir gently with a fork. Pile the mixture in a shallow serving bowl and top with the rest of the onion.

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dairy-free recipes gluten-free vegetable recipes

chocolate coconut buttermilk loaf cake + the art of packing

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Right now I have to accept the fact that my apartment looks like it’s been hit by a typhoon. This is a real struggle for a Type-A neat freak, who has started sweeping around the towering bags of food ready to be moved downstairs. Yesterday it occurred to me that packing my things into boxes didn’t even make sense, even when I sent emails and purchased boxes out of habit, because when I’ve ever had to move to another floor? My moves have always involved trucks, buff bros and a quaking kitty. This go-around I’m packing my foodstuffs in bags, hauling my clothes down in hangers, and hiring someone to help me with the heavy lifting.

And although I was initially tempted with the idea of filling the space, simply for the fact that this apartment is nearly twice the size of my current home, I paused. The space is for living not for things. The space is meant to have people over for a proper dinner party. The space is meant for doing yoga and writing and having space to think.

This weekend has been something of a maelstrom, however, what’s been wonderful is the fact that I’ve thrown out and given away so much. I’ve only ordered the essentials for my home {2 new white bookcases — one for the kitchen and one for the office, a vacuum cleaner, and some marble tiles for my food photographs}, with plans to invest in a dining table once I score another consulting project.

Until then, this Type-A neat freak will deal with the mini typhoon and pare down to only the things I love, while feasting on some homemade pound cake, naturally.

INGREDIENTS: Recipe courtesy of Bon Appetit
¼ cup unsalted butter, room temperature, plus more
1½ cups all-purpose flour
½ cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 teaspoon kosher salt
¾ teaspoon baking powder
½ cup virgin coconut oil, room temperature
1½ cups plus 1 tablespoon sugar
3 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
⅔ cup buttermilk
¼ cup unsweetened coconut flakes

DIRECTIONS
Preheat oven to 325°. Butter an 8×4” loaf pan; line with parchment paper, leaving a generous overhang on long sides. Whisk flour, cocoa powder, salt, and baking powder in a medium bowl; set aside.

Using an electric mixer on medium-high speed, beat oil, ¼ cup butter, and 1½ cups sugar until pale and fluffy, 5–7 minutes. If you’re using a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, you can cut the mixing times in this recipe in half. Add eggs one at a time, beating to blend between additions; beat until mixture is very light and doubled in volume, 5–8 minutes. Add vanilla.

Reduce mixer speed to low and add dry ingredients in 3 additions, alternating with buttermilk in 2 additions, beginning and ending with dry ingredients (do not overmix; it will cause cake to buckle and split). Scrape batter into prepared pan and run a spatula through the center, creating a canal. Sprinkle with coconut and remaining 1 tbsp. sugar.

Bake cake, tenting with foil if coconut browns too much before cake is done (it should be very dark and toasted), until a tester inserted into the center comes out clean, 70–80 minutes. Transfer pan to a wire rack; let cake cool in pan 20 minutes before turning out.

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cake + sweet loaf recipes sweet recipes

home, sweet home

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Arriving at each new city, the traveler finds again a past of his that he did not know he had: the foreignness of what you no longer are or no longer possess lies in wait for you in foreign, unpossessed places. ― Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

A few nights ago I woke from a deep sleep to discover the heat went out again. Since November, men with tools and pipes and electronic gadgets filed in and out of my apartment. They adjusted nobs and grunted and talked about water pressure, how there was never enough of it, and I exercised a sort of patience of which I would never think capable. The heat would work for a week and then it didn’t, and so I’ve been spending this rather cold, dark winter hoping that my space heaters won’t set my apartment on fire. And just when the last of the men came, just when I thought I’d make it into March in a warm home…

MY GODDAMN HEAT WENT OUT AGAIN. GODDAM IT ALL TO HELL, I THOUGHT.

My landlord {and building owner} and I are old friends. He’s old New York, Brooklyn-raised, and the fact that we grew up not too far from one another sometimes brings out the nostalgic in us. He hugged me when my Sophie died, and played with Felix, and we text and chat about the boiler in my apartment like how one would talk about about building a jet engine. So when I texted, Charlie, it’s on the fritz again, and he responded with, Be there tomorrow. There’s an extra space heater in 2A, it didn’t initially occur to me that the apartment I’ve been wanting for three years is finally vacant.

Until I entered Apartment 2A and nearly screamed. Crown moldings, intricately carved doors, a 100-square foot loft space in addition to a bedroom — this is a home engulfed in effulgent light. This is a space worthy of a Calvino-type possession. In the dark, I texted my landlord and he offered me the space for 30% less than market rate. There was a moment when I hesitated, when it dawned on me that I’m moving into a home that carries a higher price tag, but I stood in that space and felt something.

That something being possibility. I saw a home office where I could write and work. I saw dinner parties where friends no longer have to eat on the carpet. I saw food photography. I saw space. I saw a new life.

In a span of an hour, I found myself with a new home. It’s as if I’m playing the hand as it lays. Working the cards as I see them, as it were.

Naturally, I’m gawking at tufted chairs and kitchen islands. While packing and making the thirty-odd change of address calls, I found myself obsessing about marble stones and home office decor. But then, you know, I got back to reality and focused on moving.

One day at a time. One card picked up. One discarded.

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home decor