Nana and Tata

We were in Kindergarten when we met. Our backyards almost touched, kittycorner. My parents raised chickens, and her grandparents raised cockatiels in a backyard aviary. I thought she was the most beautiful girl I had ever seen, and I spent the next five years trying to grow my hair as long and hers. It’s amazing how accurate the impressions of childhood can be…

We grew up together, drifting in and out of each other’s orbits, sometimes drawing in tight, other times facing other directions, but our doors were always open, and our families loved their extra daughters as much as they loved each of us.

She and her just-barely younger sister lived with their grandparents, and it was in the dim, delicious-smelling kitchen of Nana that I really learned to cook.  Nana always had a pot of beans simmering on the stove, and if we were lucky, she’d make homemade tortillas from scratch. She always called me mija, and was just as likely to chastise me as my own mother if I stepped out of line. During middle and high school, I think I slept as many nights at their home as I did at mine.

Nana loved her girls to the ends of the world and back, and she kept close tabs on us. She would indulge us in harmless things, and yell in Spanish when we ordered yet another pizza near midnight. We spent hours at the tiny table pushed against the kitchen wall, summer-time legs sticking to the flowered vinyl of the chairs, trying to stifle girlish laughter because Tata was asleep in his big chair in the living room, drapes pulled to shield the room from the late afternoon California sun.

Tata was a big man, and while he didn’t say much, when he spoke, you stopped and you listened. He loved Nana, and as long as we didn’t make her mad, he remained still. If he cracked is eye at you, you were in trouble. He worked hard, early hours, and was often home by afternoon. He would do anything for his girls- including driving us around in the middle of the night because Nana caught us sneaking out to go toilet paper a house, and they cared more that we were safe, even if we insisted on being stupid. That was a meta-theme for our teenage years.

I loved them so much.

I was leaving church the Sunday I got the call that Nana had died. Our lives had diverged years before, mine to Washington, my friends to Arizona and then back to California again, but the bond was never broken. Standing in the parking lot, my chest heaved as the waves of loss rolled over me. I sat in the car for a long time before I drove home that day.

Yesterday, I received word that Tata, who had gone in for a minor concern, had instead decided it was time to go meet Nana. My eyes welled with tears, and it was bittersweet, because I know how much he missed her. I hope she was there waiting for him.

My kids have grown up hearing stories about Nana and Tata- Jeffrey knows certain recipes are from my childhood, and sometimes when I am telling a tale, he will interrupt me, asking “Is this about your California Nana, or about my Washington Nana?” He knows when he gets a bird-brained teenage idea, he’s safer coming to me than he ever will be sneaking out.

Nana and Tata are part of the weft and weave of my life, and I don’t know if they ever knew how much they meant to me, or how much I loved them; I hope so.

Family means so much more than just the people to whom we share bloodlines. Nana and Tata probably never imagined the little girl they welcomed into their home nearly four decades ago would be changed by them, and would be sharing their stories and influence with her own children. I am indebted and grateful with all of my heart that I was privileged to be their mija.

Recipe: Tamales

IMG_5798A couple times a year, I get out the steamer and the cornhusks, and make a batch of tamales. I’d like to say I do it at the same time, but no…it’s pretty much whenever I get a hankering for home. There’s nothing like a good, fresh, homemade tamale. They’re a labor of love, really— you can’t throw tamales together on a whim, but they’re also not rocket science— anyone can make them with the right ingredients and a bit of time.

There are some ingredients that might be unfamiliar to some cooks. You will need cornhusks, chiles, and masa flour. While you might find the ingredients at a well-stocked supermarket, you’ll probably find fresher things at your local international market. I do almost half our shopping now at the international market- I can get Latin ingredients, kimchee and bibimbap, the fixings for Phò and Indian paneer all in one place. And, the meat and produce are *always* fresh and much cheaper than at the mega-mart. Don’t be intimidated if you cant read all the labels- ask.

(Pro-tip: If you need gluten-free flour, buy the ingredients to make your own mix at the Asian market! I can make almost 20 pounds of gluten-free flour mix for less than $20 by buying the ingredients from the Japanese and east Indian aisles.)

Recipe: Tamales


Filling:

  • 2-2 1/2 pounds pork roast, cooked until very tender. A crock pot works great.
  • 3 dried pasilla chiles
  • 1/4 cup vegetable oil
  • 1 1/2 cups chicken broth
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp black pepper
  • 1/3 cup sesame seeds
  • anchiote paste (a reddish-orange spice without much flavor, used as color in latin foods- and in cheddar cheese, actually!)

In a sauce pan, break up the dried pasilla chiles in the oil, discarding the stems. Sauté until chiles are soft and fragrant, about five minutes. In a blender, puree the sautéd chiles and chicken broth. Set aside.

In a bowl, break apart and shred the pork roast. Add the pureed chilie/broth mixture, salt, pepper and sesame seeds. Combine well. If you want the color to be the more traditional red-orange, add a teaspoon of anchiote paste. Set aside.

Before you make the masa, get the cornhusks soaking. They’re brittle when dry, but after a soak in very hot water, they will be soft and pliable. You can use a large pot, bowl, or do what I do, and just fill the clean sink with hot water. Let them soak until soft, usually about the time it takes to make the masa.

Masa flour is made for tamales. It’s finely ground cornflour which has been treated with lime- regular cornmeal or corn flour will not work. 

  • 4 cups masa flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 2 2/3 cups chicken broth or water
  • 1 1/3 cups lard or solid shortening (yes, you have to)

In a large bowl, mix masa, baking powder and salt. Add broth or water and mix throughly to make a soft, moist dough (hands work well for this). In your mixer with the whip attachment, beat lard until light and fluffy. Add the masa mixture and continue to beat until well incorporated and the mixture is uniform and slightly sticky.

Assembly:

Gather your prepared ingredients- masa, filling and soaked, drained cornhusks.

Spread the masa evenly over 2/3 of each cornhusk. You can do this with a spatula, your hands, or using a tortilla press. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but an even layer will help in steaming better finished tamales.

Add about a tablespoon of the meat mixture to the center of the masa. Close the husk, bringing the sides together, rolling, and then folding up the bottom. It’s okay for the top to remain open, but squeeze the masa to enclose the meat, even if left open.

Continue using all husks, masa and filling.

Arrange tamales in a steamer over simmering water, open ends up. Don’t squish them- it may take more than one batch to steam them all. Cover with a damp cotton dishcloth and then with a lid. Steam about one hour. They’re ready when you can peel the husk away and the masa is firm and holds it’s shape.

IMG_6081

Enjoy them right from the steamer. We love them fresh and plain, but they’re great as part of a meal with your favorite sauce and some cheese sprinkled on top, too.

Book Tour Wrap-Up

IMG_5942So I spent part of January in Utah on a book tour. A few times I mentioned there was a book coming out, but I didn’t make a big deal out of it- but it turns out it’s something I’m actually really proud to have been a part of. The finished book is a lovely compilation of essays compiled and edited by myself and Emily Jensen, and is the culmination of more than a year of work.

Emily and I spent the better part of a week visiting bookstores along the Wasatch Front, visiting with our local contributing writers, and sharing the stage with interesting and compelling people. It was exhilarating and exciting and so much fun- and I learned a lot.

This is the seventh book in the “I Speak for Myself” series, focusing on delivering narrative collections of inspiring, thoughtful essays with focus and rich diversity. Emily and I are so proud to have been asked to edit the volume on Mormons.

The book is A Book of Mormons: Latter-day Saints on a Modern Day Zion. Janan Graham-Russell wrote a beautiful forward for us, and among the many contributors are Neylan McBaine, Courtney Kendrick, Patrick Mason, Kailani Tonga, Josh Weed, Kate Kelly, Michael Austin, Melissa Wei-Tsing Inouye, Adam Miller, Julie Smith… It was truly an honor to work with so many amazing writers.

IMG_5921

We owe a debt of gratitude to everyone who came out to see us, to talk with us, to join us in the conversations about the books, and about the changing landscape of Zion and what it means to each of us. Special thanks are due to The King’s English Book Shop, Writ & Vision Rare Books & Fine Art, and Benchmark Books, for holding such lovely events and welcoming us so warmly.

IMG_5940

This picture makes me ridiculously happy- This was taken at Writ & Vision, after a packed house came to hear us speak with Patrick Mason, about his stellar new book, Planted, and every one of these beautiful faces is like family to me.

Jana Reiss interviewed Emily and I one afternoon at the delicious cafe Gourmandise in Salt Lake City, and was beautifully generous in her write up:

These essays were like a balm to my soul, in which some of our religion’s best thinkers muse on the capacious notion of “Zion” and decide that it’s bigger than we give it credit for when we are so quickly judging one another.

This book is like the most thoughtful testimony meeting you’ve ever attended. Essays by Adam Miller, Kathyn LynardPatrick MasonJoanna BrooksMelissa Inouye . . . a fantastic cartoon from Scott Hales . . . There are feminists of several different stripes (including moderate Neylan McBaine and radical Kate Kelly, and an interesting piece from biblical scholar Julie Smith who uses three archetypes from the Book of Mormon to describe the tensions among different kinds of LDS women today) . . . There are BYU professors like Camille Fronk OlsonIgnacio Garcia, and George Handley. (See the book’s website for a complete list of contributors.)

In short, it’s a feast of Mormon testimonies from very different people who have one thing in common: a commitment to Zion.

You can read the entire review here.

I wrapped up the week by slipping on some ice and tearing a tendon in my knee, which I absolutely do not recommend.

IMG_5956

I think next time I’m involved in either editing or writing another book, I will be a little less shameless about promoting. It sure was a lot of fun, and the end of a long road and a lot of hard work. Once again, I am so pleased to have been a part of it!

Perspective

IMG_5991

I spent the day in silence.

Today was the first day my kids had school since January 20th. That’s twelve days, for anyone counting. Twelve snow days, only about half of which had actual snow, but during which my house was inundated with the constantly shedding clothing that come with three-to-five children, their coats, mittens, boots and the muddy paws of a giant dog who discovered he loves snow.

It’s been melting for days, and while there are piles of gritty grey road snow on the edges of the road, the yard and walkways are soggy, sodden messes. There is mud everywhere.

Children deposited at their respective schools, I put the dog in the pokey and started the process of digging out. There is something soothing about a silent house with only the ticking of the cuckoo clock and the churning washing machine keeping me company.

No music, no tv, no video games in the background, and not even the dog underfoot, I carefully went about the task of sorting the coats, boots, and scarves. The warm laundry slowly piled up on my bed, and I didn’t hurry as I vacuumed the corners of the stairs and under the entry way table. While I like a clean house as much as the next person, I long ago gave up any notion of perfection. Good enough is good enough for me. It keeps me sane.

I love the way the cherry floors gleam when they’re clean— but I also love the way the pile of backpacks and books, lunch boxes and dog toys and stray bits of melting, muddy snow, show people really live here. This isn’t a showplace. It’s a home.

My clean floors and quiet lasted about an hour, before the first kid arrived home. It was a nice hour. But so are the ones that follow…

Into the Breach

SLAqZXY

Someone told me once that the more you read, the better a writer you become. Maybe someone was right about someone, but they’re not right about me. When I read too much, I lose my voice; I fall in love with their stories and cannot find the beginning of the spool of my own. That’s all well and good, until I realize one day I am holding my breath and my chest stings with sinewy tension from holding my unrealized words at bay, which I never even decided to do.

Kathryn asked me what I was going to write. We have been friends for lifetimes. Our skins bear remnants of the ashes of each other’s fires and the salted circles of each others’ tears. “I don’t know. I have no idea. That’s why I write.” We laughed- a shared reality, both funny and slightly bitter at the backend. She is a writer, too.

Never in my life has anything  looked like I thought it would. Never. Not a single thing. No painting, no essay, no book, no child, no marriage. They’ve all been better, greater, deeper, more painful, richer, breathtaking, harder…when juxtaposed agains my feeble imagination and the impetus leading me to pick up brush or pen. Always.

Silhouetted against the inky night glass, Kathryn asked me what I am afraid of. “Sharks.” She snickers. Our conversations are years old. I am knitting quietly, outside the circle of amber light cast by the low lamp, but my fingers and the roving know this rhythm and their tightly woven patterns seem to free my mind to wander and find the real answer.

I try and find the thread, that tiny place where there is a real answer to her question. She will laugh with me, but really she is gently coaxing me to look where I am afraid to look. She says nothing while I run the soft yarn between my fingers. She is holding space, protecting my margins, while I reacquaint myself with the dark.

I am afraid of the thousands of tiny moments of light and brilliance that make up the life of a person being lost, and forgotten, and swallowed by the breach. I am not afraid of dying; I am afraid of our stories— our precious sparks of madness and glory— being forgotten.

My hands are still knitting. My heart hurts, and I swallow hard. This is my truth. This is why I am a writer, a steward of some, a protector of others, a champion of myself and those I love. I am a writer. I must write to figure this out.

Kathryn nods quietly.

Another day, it will be my turn to hold her space, to use my light for her.

(p.s. I’m not very certain of many things, but I am very certain the Icelandic alterna-rock band she had playing in the background had their album picture taken in snowy woods.)

Of Resolutions…

Well then. Happy New Year wishes are in order…ten days into the new year? Yeah. Clearly my New Years resolutions are out the window already. Alas. Actually, my resolution was to be a “meek, soft-spoke and genteel lady” so speaking of out-the-window…

I’m getting ready to fly to Utah to promote a book I co-edited. It was one of my major projects last year- and it came out right before Christmas. We opted to push promotions to January, when everyone is looking for things to do- et voila! It’s a collection of essays from some brilliant friends and scholars about what it means to build Zion for Mormons now that we don’t drag handcarts across the prairies. If that sounds like good bedtime reading to you, give it a try!

It’s been a while since I did any public speaking, and my kids still laugh that people actually (at least in the past, we’ll see what happens this time) would come to listen to me talk on purpose. I feel a little rusty, but I’m hoping it’s like riding a bike. We’ll be at several bookstores around the Wasatch Front. Jeffrey keeps giggling and mumbling to himself that he has to listen to me all the time. Teenagers are awesome for keeping you humble.

Speaking of…

IMG_5794

There is only one kid left who is not a tween/teen yet in this house! We had a great vacation. We spent days in our pajamas, a Lego bomb went off in the basement, we watched movies and ate popcorn, we went the theater, watched the dog grow before our very eyes, and basically just had a relaxing holiday where we didn’t do much of anything important, which is the best holiday, I believe.

I learned how to make donuts! Yes, really. LOOK!

IMG_5768

The kids devoured two batches, and asked for more. Reason dictated not.

My knitting needles have been busy this year, and unlike most years, I am still knitting deep into January- and pretty happy about it. I switched to a new brand of wooden needles, and I love how they slide through the yarn.

IMG_5749

For New Year’s Eve, we made tamales (don’t you? you should. really. can’t you almost smell the masa?)

IMG_5796

IMG_5798

We celebrated in Old Town with hot chocolate, love, a rousing game of tag, a ton of laughter, the second-best photo-bomb ever, and some kisses.

IMG_5820

IMG_5811

All joking aside, I’ve never been big on resolutions, with a capital R, but as I get older, I realize goal-setting, realistic, reachable, forward-thinking, planned, and exciting *goals* are good. I haven’t fully figured out what my goals are for this year- or at least not to the point I am ready to share them. But they are bouncing around in my head, and I am mulling over where and what I hope for for the future of this amazing circus. What I do know is the more I remember to just breathe, to protect the margins for those I love, and then just let go and let them be, the more I can do that… the happier life is.

Happy New Year, everyone! What do you hope for this year? Do you set goals? Resolutions? How good are you at follow-through? And what does that even mean? I’m interested.

 

Merry Christmas Eve

 

Screen Shot 2015-12-24 at 7.36.02 AM

Our 2015 Christmas Card photo. Life as it is.

It’s raining hard in the mid-Atlantic; el niño is making itself felt with temperatures in the mid 70s on Christmas eve. I have to admit, it feels more like a California Christmas than it has in the 13 years since I left my home state. It’s disconcerting- but I am so happy to see the west getting desperately needed snow pack and the pictures from my mom of the creek on their property running for the first time in ages.

The humidity and warmth has completely jacked my holiday baking, and after my first batch of baklava wasn’t as pretty as I like, and Jon’s batches of fudge didn’t set up right, we kind of threw our hands up and gave up. “Not this year, then.” was the peaceful resignation. We let the kids decorate the sugar cookies, as is tradition, but then called the game. Not worth the aggravation or frustration.

I love having the kids home from school. We’ve had a lazy few days of doing not much of anything- aided by the endless rain. Abby and I took in a professional performance of the Nutcracker- her first, and mine in many years. Her takeaway was that it would be easier to pay attention if the theater had reclining seats like the movies, and that she felt wiggly and thirsty. Hard to argue.  I admit to finding theater and modern dance more compelling than classical ballet- and this was a very classical production.

Jeffrey has now taught Bean and Abby how to cross stitch, and they are all deeply invested in their respective needleworks. It’s pretty great to look around our house and see them all bowed low over their hoops and Aida cloth, busily stitching away. Jeffrey has an opinion on needle-threaders and particular brands of cloth, and Bean made it all the way through church by working on his embroidery.

My knitting yields this year were less than in previous, high-stress years— only seven pairs of socks. Photos forthcoming, as they are all wrapped under the tree.

We celebrated Star Wars Day (with most of the nerds on the planet) last Friday, and had our tickets in hand for opening night. But first, Star Wars Day dinner… Fresh Tauntaun Stew over Hoth Snow and Degobah Swamp Punch:Screen Shot 2015-12-24 at 7.32.24 AM

Now to enjoy my most favorite day of the year… everything is done, the lists are all crossed off, there is nowhere to rush, and nothing left to wrap. There is a broad and gentle day of calm before the chaos and joy of tomorrow. I will enjoy the pregnant peace and love of Christmas Eve, and wish you and yours the same.