The Peace of Other People’s Homes

122815Watching a friend’s cat, I let myself in, find the pans hung in their same places, the lights of the wi-fi still twinkling. There is something in the smooth surfaces of someone else’s table, the soft fluff of someone else’s cat with her petite head nudging my hand. Her neediness is not the neediness of my own pets, this mail not my mail to be sorted and dealt with. Nothing new gets added to my lists between these walls. I could sit all night reading a magazine in the brown chair, cat brushing again past my legs. Then later, at another house, a pile of shredded manchego waits, a wooden spoon we take turns using to stir the risotto. The sausage a gift from a friend I don’t know, have no need to thank. I could take a week off just to sort through my home, its piles, its unclipped price tags. But in other people’s homes, nothing is left undone. Over time the rice plumps perfectly. And if the lock sticks as I’m leaving, I don’t mind. Just jiggle it closed and move on.

December 28, 2015

California, an Essay (an Assay)

To attempt to capture it. How quickly we arrive, as if we awoke and those golden hills were right there before us. Poached eggs and decaf coffee. A wander through campus where, like at other campuses, I imagine a life I never quite got to live. Graduates students holding coffee mugs stroll in deep conversation. Above Berkeley we walk a fire road that twists higher. Rusty gates and reservoirs and the shimmering moment I realize to sit on a bench with the man I love and stare across an unbroken vista is really all I could ever want.

In Napa, there are chicken wings—Daddy’s recipe—at the picnic table and a white, then a red, then a white to keep us going. So much to talk about. And downtown on a picnic blanket I wonder at a baby named Cecily, at a grandmother with a tattoo on her ankle, at a place just small enough to be able to have enough people to say hello to. And then Carly, so fully herself, we barely recognize her. It’s not just the long braid that is gone.

In California it isn’t just what happens. It’s what we discover we want. To step out of the house and smell grapes in the morning. To climb each day higher and higher until we pause to see the mountains in the distance. To have friends stop by. To sit on a Friday evening while the air cools and talk to family. To walk down for a latte and a glazed donut. Peaches at the farmer’s market that have more flavor than words can say. We only get to live once, and why shouldn’t we live it in a place we find beautiful? And yet don’t we already? What is it about California that makes us forget?

There is a notebook open to a fresh page. A cellphone gathering data over the airwaves. A book picked up from a box in a driveway and started and discarded. There is a fish named for a man I’ve never heard of that sits in a delicate broth I sip with a spoon. There is Ben and Jerry’s passed across the table while we draw cards and laugh. There is another walk up the hillside, another vista. And then a drive through single lane roads while the phone carries its sad stories and I watch the landscape to settle my stomach. Waves crash. Rocks rise from the tide in striking shapes. Children scurry toward the water and back again. The sun pinks my nose.

California and its imagined lives. That we will sit by Tomales Bay sipping white wine and slurping oysters. That we will laugh until we hold our stomachs even more, even more, shake our hands in the air to say, “Stop.” That those neat lines of grape vines will be part of our view. A small house with a yard dotted with plumbago. A Christmas Eve of seven fishes, a summer evening with a sweater on. We plot and scheme, we wait. Then we drive to the airport, ten pounds of artisan beans in our bags, ready to book again for next year, and the next.

September 7, 2015

Getting Through

081915Tired and exhilarated, hopeful and relieved, I arrived home from orientation with a hankering for gelato. It happens every year, the big ramp up for the day, the breathless rush of running it, the sense of miracle when it all goes off smoothly. Students arrived brimming with hope. They were surrounded by supporters — alums and advisory committee members and ACC staff and case managers and me and Amelia and Irene, all of us greeting them with all of our enthusiasm. They sit down cautiously. They listen. Across their faces flash fear and excitement, uncertainty and eagerness. Afterwards, tables returned to their places, pizza boxes stacked next to the trash can, paperwork filed back in our bags, I want to celebrate. My first year, I planned to meet Laurie and Mario and Chris for a margarita, but I-35 was a parking lot and by the time I got down south, the gathering was over. Perched on the upper deck of the highway, I cried. This year I arrived home and Chris was waiting for me in his pajamas. When I said gelato, he sped to the bedroom and changed back into clothes. But it was nearing 10 and the places were closed. I ate some chocolate and watched tv to wind down. So on Wednesday, the week half over, the next big class day ahead of us, we got that gelato. Chocolate paired with olive oil, a bench outside to watch the hip young world of East 6th Street pass by, we took it bite by bite.

August 19, 2015

Getting Ready

081615You look at the week ahead like a patch of ice you will cross but not without sliding a lot, not without a stumble, a fall, a spin that takes you in the wrong direction. And not without looking upward to be dazzled by the scenery. But focus. Balance carefully. Look ahead. Students and registration and phone calls and pizza and stacks of books and rosters and child care and parking. Somewhere in the midst of it, writing and exercise and eating. You care a lot about eating. So you head out early Sunday to the store and spend the afternoon listening to podcasts while you chop and stir and simmer. Veggie stew. Vats of salad. Jerk marinade. You ponder containers for carrying it all, seek the missing cap for the water bottle. Then fill a canister with granola, this one cooked with only nuts, toasting on low heat until the house smells golden. If you’re lucky, it will fuel you to the other side.

August 16, 2015

Over the Okra

080415But oh, did we try. Roasted. Sauteed with olive oil and garlic and tossed with pasta. Left too long in the fridge and eaten fast upon arrival. Made into pilau, Southern for pilaf, for which I made an early morning trip to Trader Joe’s for bacon and basmati and then simmered it with onion and chicken broth and cracked black pepper. We missed the pickles, however, and never battered and deep fried. But there was wok searing, tomato adding. More salt, a dash of red pepper. And finally, as the season came to a close, one last attempt. Half of it ended up in the trash, despite my intentions. “We’ve taken our relationship as far it’s going to go,” I joked, and then started planning for next year.

August 3, 2015

I Can Now Admit

072315This time of year kicks my ass. Interviewing applicants, twenty, thirty, forty of them, reaching and scheduling and inviting and welcoming and listening and explaining and testing and reassuring and then, hardest of all, choosing. It’s difficult to imagine a privilege greater than sitting down to hear someone’s story, the losses, the yearnings, the very hard things that kept them from what they wanted. They arrive with tattoos down their arms and onto their fingers, or in a nice blouse they clearly wore for the occasion, or with young children trailing behind to be entertained by cell phones while we talk. They laugh or fall silent with shyness or sometimes cry and cry. And it is an act of attention, of holding space, to be there with them, to really be present. And it tires. And so yesterday afternoon I stepped away early, came home, put on stretchy pants and lay down. When I woke two hours later the cat was snoozing at my feet. I ate tuna salad, cleared my in-box, watched Chopped, and went back to bed. This morning puttering in pajama pants I set tomatoes to roast at low temperature for three hours. They will turn sweet, so sweet, so slow and so sweet.

July 23, 2015