Tag Archives: gratitude

A Real Job

Twice now, I have overheard my husband talking to his family and implying that I am not gainfully employed. “If I died tomorrow,” he says, “Jules would have to go and get a real job.” He’s right and he’s wrong. I do have a job; two, in fact. I am a mother and I teach middle school Humanities. The latter arrangement is purposefully part-time.

Several years ago, I was killing myself working full-time for a supervisor who delighted in disparaging me, taking credit for my writing, and making me cry. Other people were raising my children, witnessing their accomplishments and milestones while I reported daily for the abuse of my self-esteem. When my mother died unexpectedly in 2010, I experienced the type of enlightenment that comes from sudden shock: in my case, a crushing loss that gave me the clarity and strength I needed to change. I quit my job to become a freelancer and occasional tutor.

I have not regretted my choice to be present for my children or the pay cut that came with it. I drop the kids off at school each morning, and I greet them happily when they return home. I sign the permission slips; I help with the homework. So, yes, my husband is right: a significant downturn in life would force me to secure a more lucrative paycheck. But he’s wrong, too. Parenthood is my foremost imperative: a job I perform with diligence and pride.

*

My son, Kai, keeps a journal in his fifth grade class, and we trade off writing entries to one another every day after school. He writes about what he’s been learning and how he feels. The journal provides a complex synthesis of his innermost thoughts and perceptions. He tucks in stickers and inspirational quotes. I delight in giving him wacky responses, just to see if he notices. (He does.) I cherish these little conversations.

Third grade Kai.

Third grade Kai.

Kai is the reason I transitioned into teaching. I knew that I wanted to be involved in my children’s education. When I saw an opportunity four years ago, I applied for the job, eager to work with middle school minds and perform the unspoken requirements needed to work with my own kids in the future.

Fifth grade Kai. The conversation only gets better.

Fifth grade Kai. The conversation only gets better.

*

At work, I channel the outspoken individuals who taught me in junior high: Mr. Homer, Mr. Goldberg, the Highlands, and Miss Becker, who revolutionized my ninth grade world by welcoming me into her AV girl squad. I remember small details about them: the way Mr. Homer adapted 60s song lyrics and serenaded his students; the talk Mr. Highland gave science class about “bowel massage.” Mr. Goldberg administered well-timed hugs, and to this day I envision Mrs. Highland’s prodigiously-lined eyes widening in admiration, chiffon sleeves billowing: “They called him Seurat, the Dot.”

I often wonder how those teachers did it. What compelled them to work with a bunch of foul-mouthed, loosely disciplined, pimply adolescents who weren’t even their own kin? And how did they contribute so much of their hearts without certainty that the investment of their time and energy would be returned or acknowledged? They provided light along the path to individuality.

*

Once, I asked my students why they thought I came to work every day. “You got the job because of your husband,” guessed one. “You really like working with kids,” said another. A third, barely looking up from his handheld technology, offered: “It’s your dream job!”

It isn’t, and I don’t always love it. Sometimes middle school students are obnoxious and gross. When one of my boys mutters something – usually a dirty joke or song lyric – that makes all the girls collectively gag and recoil, I roll my eyes and question if this is how the universe truly wants me to measure the worth of my days. Is this the work I’m supposed to do? Because I remember my teachers so fondly, and because my co-workers seem to thrive at what they do, I sometimes feel like the odd-person-out who views teaching as a job, rather than a passion.

*

Students in my classes probably won’t remember what a dependent clause is or why an Oxford comma makes a difference to the reader. They could not care less about plot lines, context, or hubris. They might remember that I treat fictional characters as if they are personal friends and stammer when I speak too fast. With any luck, they’ll intuit the broader lesson: that whether they’re creative or cranky, flippant or funny, they matter. They can live, talk, think, and act authentically, even if it takes them some time to put all those connections together. Those who have found their voices should help those who haven’t.

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*

At the end of the day, my reach in the classroom is finite and comprises only a fraction of potential influence. I strive to do well, though as summer break approaches and my students’ attention spans grow shorter, success is difficult to gauge. The work I do at home, however, offers immediate, enduring results. It is never far from my mind that the two students I care and advocate for most are the ones who share a roof with me.

Kai is one grade away from middle school. It’s greedy to covet his time in the classroom and at home, but there are so many books to read with him and so many writing prompts I’d love to learn his responses to. I have no doubt which job holds the greater value.

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© 2016 Julia Moris-Hartley

*****

With sincere gratitude to all of the teachers – in middle school, before and

after – who lit the way with love and support.

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Friendsgiving

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Simple, fragrant place-setting: rosemary sprigs and fresh cranberries, strung with floral twine.

My husband and I moved to Utah in the summer of 2008. Eager to begin a new life out West and unfamiliar with the vacation realities of boarding school life, we arrived in early June, squeezing our belongings into a tiny duplex on Main Street. We knew no one. I can’t speak for my husband, who is an undiagnosed hermit, but as I sat amidst ceiling-high boxes and mismatched furniture in the stifling summer heat, I began to seriously doubt our decision. Then came a knock at the door. A school faculty member named Max stood at our threshold, smiling and welcoming us to town. He invited us to dinner at his house.

We quickly became friends with his family, whose children were close in age to ours and whose sensibilities and warmth won our hearts. They introduced us to several other faculty families. Our circle of friends grew. We hosted dinner parties; we enjoyed parties hosted by others; and, just like that, we weren’t lonely strangers anymore. We became part of a community that has supported us and nurtured us for the last seven years.

In our first year, I hosted an Orphans Thanksgiving for the faculty members who were unable to spend the holiday with their families. Thanksgiving is my absolute favorite holiday. I have so many blessings to be thankful for. It only seemed right to share the day with others. I cooked the turkeys, and guests each brought a side dish. Over time, the tradition transformed into a gathering of an ever-growing family of friends. The guest list changes, but the joyous heart of communion remains.

This year, we grilled New York strip steaks, marinated liberally in rosemary, garlic, and olive oil — a low-stress alternative to turkey that requires much less clean up. I also tried out a hasselback potato gratin from the New York Times (amazing!). Hosting Friendsgiving gives me the culinary freedom to experiment and enables guests to enjoy not one, but two days of revelry and gratitude.

As Denise Chavez writes: “We have so much to be thankful for: Christmas, Hanukah, Kwanzaa, tacos of all kinds, Pad Thai, sushi, chicken chow mein, pizza, meat loaf and mashed potatoes, mariachis, symphony orchestras, rock and roll, rap, funk, rhythm and blues, rancheras, boleros, soul music, day, night, rain, snow, blue skies, clouds, our mothers, our fathers, the many ancestors whose blood and pulse of life we carry within us.” For all of these blessings and more, thanks be.

*

Friendsgiving is fun. Here are some tips from a few years of experience.

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Kids’ tables: Craft paper table covers and buckets of crayons are great for little hands. Slightly older child guests appreciate being treated with a little more care. I don’t use my best china, but I put out nice plates and juice glasses.
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Make thrift shops and garage sales your friends. You can score a handful of silverware, dishes, or folding chairs and tables for relatively little money. My tablecloth is a bolt of fabric from a craft store.

 

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Flowers. Bunches of fresh herbs are lovely too.
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Usually, I put out white plates. I opted to use my grandmother’s fine china this year. Life is short.

 

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Parlor tricks: Write notes of thanks to each guest. Ask them to guess the card you chose for them based on the cover art.

 

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Put out several carafes of water for guests to drink throughout the meal. I set up a separate drink station with a range of cocktail and wine glasses, a bucket of ice, and extra bottle openers.

 

 

 

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Noshes are important, too: crackers, nuts, cheeses, and fruits give guests a distraction while you’re carving the turkey or sneaking a glass of wine.

 

 

 

© 2015 Julia Moris-Hartley

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Reframing

The new academic year brought changes to my work schedule that put my mornings in a weird “hurry up and wait” limbo, whereby I pack lunch for my children and usher them to school, then have three long hours before entering the classroom to teach. More leisurely people than I might use that time to doze or catch up on world news with a coffee, but I am physically incapable of relaxing after I wake up. Once I’m on, I’m on until it’s time to be off. So, I decided to reframe this window of time by using it as an opportunity to rediscover the town I live in and remember why I am so fortunate to be here.

My goal: to log 25 miles per week, by whatever means necessary, documenting the beauty I see along the way. How many times have I been out on a run and encountered something remarkable, like a pair of soaring bald eagles or an egret’s long neck rising from a knee-high field of alfalfa? I’ve taken these pictures over the last month. These are the friends I most often see: mountains, fields, dusty roads, sheep, cows, peafowl, hawks, geese, farm kittens, and a guard dog named Bella. I hope you find them just as pretty as I do.

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Fall colors in the valley.

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Snow arrives in the hills.

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Bella, the guard dog, facilitator of farm kitten naps.

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First snow.

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Inspiration for the lesser-known David Bowie hit, “The Prettiest Cows.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

© Julia Moris-Hartley, 2015

 

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I Heart…

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…Because I Call Them on a Saturday Night and They Are Gracious

A group of friends went to dinner in an early celebration of Mother’s Day. They hired baby-sitters for their children; they coordinated a carpool to a city an hour’s drive north, where they had made reservations at Communal, a restaurant that boasts locally sourced, seasonal menus. At Communal, they ordered wine, appetizers, and six entrees, which they shared, family-style, in an amber-lit, partitioned room. Some partook of dessert, which was also shared. The friends split the bill without quibbling, and tipped their servers well. One of the men offered to drive everyone home. Hunger sated, spirits buoyed, they returned.

I was fortunate to be part of this dining experience. My friends and I live in a rural area with limited dining options, so planned events – I call them food pilgrimages – provide us with rare moments of socio-culinary joy. The details of this meal have since faded into an overall impression: the food was delicious; we had a great time. But one dish stood out: skirt steak with roasted piquillo peppers.

I could not stop thinking about the steak the following day and well into the evening, so I called the restaurant about twenty minutes before they closed. To my delight, one of the chefs agreed to talk with me. I apologized for the late hour and asked if he had a couple of moments. He assured me that he did, then he told me how the dish was made: ingredients, pointers, and all. Dear chef, had you been standing next to me, I would have kissed you.

*

… Because They Know How to Make An Experience Unforgettable

My friends, Casey and Laura, occasionally abduct me for a girls’ night out. Recently, we ventured to Chef’s Table, which is located in Orem. Chef’s Table is an eight-year recipient of the Best of State Award in Fine Dining. The restaurant is a luxury that we, on school salaries, can afford only on choice occasions, so we tend to make the most of them.

When we arrived, they seated us in the east room, which has floor to ceiling windows overlooking Provo Canyon. The setting sun blushed against the grey, striated upper crags of the Wasatch front, shrouding the lower valley in evening shade. We nestled into comfortable leather chairs amidst the tinkle of forks and low conversations.

One of our servers brought us a basket of warm, doughy rolls with a side of kalamata butter. We promptly ate them all. Casey, bedecked in a long grey dress and her signature red lips, ignited as the rush of umami engulfed her. We began to talk more animatedly, debating what to order. Which appetizers sounded the best to share? (Three cheese fondue with sourdough crisps and onion soup gratinée.) What entrée were we least likely to replicate at home?  (Lamb with white beans and sausage goulash; mushroom stuffed filet with ‘whipped’; and sirloin steak with truffle frites.) What type of wine should we drink? (Ravenswood Red Zinfandel.)

A change rippled through the dining room sometime in between the second round of rolls and the uncorking of the wine. The room quieted. Other diners, mostly couples, were watching us as we sampled from each other’s plates: spoons swooping, glasses tippling, murmuring in a near-rapturous state. It occurred to us that three boisterous women, high on delicious food and wine, might pose a date night anomaly. Glancing mischievously at one another, our eyes made a silent pact to provide our fellow diners with the entertainment they sought. Unapologetic foodies, we murmured louder.

By the time our entrees arrived, we didn’t really care what the couple seated across from us – who ate their entire meal one-handed, their opposite hands entwined in a sustained, tabletop embrace – thought. I turned my back to the balding man among the party of six in the corner of the room. He had actually leaned forward in his seat, neck craned, ear cocked in our direction. Casey playfully returned the favor. “Maybe we should invite him to join us,” she mock-whispered.

Our servers offered us countless rolls and unending butter; they refilled our glasses, removed plates, replaced silverware, and inquired about our satisfaction with each dish. I think our antics secretly amused them, though the befuddled hostess may have lamented her placement choice. Perhaps we’ll warn her next time: Beware! Foodies Gone Wild! On that night, however, our fleeting celebrity was well worth the cost of the performance.

*

… Because Making Others Happy Makes Them Happy

Joe, the chef de cuisine at the school where I work, rides a motorcycle and rocks out in a band. He recently got his last name tattooed on his forearm in large cursive letters, and is someone to whom I might turn if I needed food advice, special ingredients, or, perhaps, the name of a hit man.

Chef Joe is one of the most generous people I know. On my daughter’s birthday, he posted a big colorful sign in the cafeteria. He offers food samples and overages he can’t use to anyone who will take them. He’s given me honeycomb and Thai peanut marinade; he’s even given me duplicate cooking books, because he knows I share his love of food and because he has excellent taste in aspiring food writers who live in his immediate vicinity. Generosity isn’t an air or obligation for him; it’s his manner of being.

I can attest to Joe’s generosity specifically, but in my experience many food people share this quality. I do, as do my food-loving friends. I have yet to meet an ungracious chef. Generosity of spirit marks those who love to share their meals: it compels us to commune, to inquire, to enjoy and delight. Our spirits are propelled by the appreciative gestures and smiles of our efforts. It makes Joe happy to make others happy. It makes me happy to make you happy.

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… Because They Give Me A Reason To Write

To all my friends in food: Thank you for helping to make the world a happier and infinitely more delicious place. Thank you for giving me direction and literary purpose. Happy, happy Thanksgiving!

I thank you!

I thank you!

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The Hunting Incident

It started out well enough...

It started so innocently…

“Mom, can we bring the pup?” asks Kai, gazing up with expectant hazel eyes, the freckle under his left eye illuminated in early afternoon sun. I glance at our dog, Coco: a small whitish mass of downy fluff and energy, her tail alert and wagging.

“Sure,” I say. “She’s part of the family, too, right?”

My children, Kai and Rory, exclaim “Yay!” in unison. Kai takes Coco’s leash from its hook in the laundry room, attaches the leash to Coco’s black collar, and stands and salutes, saying, “Ready for takeoff, ma’am!” Rory follows suit, also saluting. She giggles. Her freckled cheeks giggle with her.  The dog sneezes.

We open the door to a gentle easterly fall breeze, and pile into the car for a hike in nearby hills.

*

Our valley had its first snow a few days earlier, ironically, on the calendar’s first day of autumn: snow sheathed the higher rocky crags, and icy confetti dotted our driveway.  I mused on Mother Nature’s harsh whims, knowing better but nevertheless pressing a grey smudge of bitterness on my heart.  The weather gave us a short reprieve, and I seized the chance to venture out – with the kids, the dog, and the camera – in search of changing leaves.

We drove to Power Plant Road, and started up a trail that leads to a peak overlooking the valley. Kai offered to walk Coco so that Rory and I could take pictures. We passed two hunters dressed in dark camouflage suits, a common sight during the annual hunting season.  They knelt in the dirt with their backs to us, rinsing their hands in a stream of snow run-off, and talking in low, deep voices.  We continued up the trail with Kai and Coco in the lead. Kai stopped abruptly.

“Mom?” he asked. “Mom, what’s that?”  He pointed.

“What’s what?” I said, unzipping the camera bag and wrestling out the camera.  My eyes followed Kai’s finger and saw a bright red leg, deftly removed of skin, with muscle, bone, and hoof in tact.  A precise cube of venison steak lay in the dirt by my feet; stringy maroon entrails scattered along the path in the short distance between us.

“Is that blood, mom?” asked Kai, who is squeamish about everything related to internal anatomy. He presses his hands to his eyes during portions of movies or television shows that involve the handling or manipulation of flesh. “Sorry,” he says, genuinely apologetic. “It’s just that it makes me feel yucky inside.”  He gags at the sight of blood and prefers to eat things that grow from the earth.

Around us, autumn’s leaves succumbed to winter; they changed colors, but the colors were muted and pale.  The deer leg offered the brightest hue for miles.  I looked at Kai, who stared at the neatly severed leg with uncharacteristic calm. His arms strained to hold Coco, the only hunter among us, pawing at the dirt and sniffing furiously.  The sun shone warmly on my skin, but I felt chilled.  Distant gunshots pierced the air.

“Come on back down, you guys,” I said, as coolly as I could, though even I felt yucky inside. “Don’t let the dog get that meat,” I added.

The hunters had left; clouds of dust swirled in the wake of their four-wheelers.  I have never hunted, but I was puzzled.  Why would anyone leave such a huge portion of meat behind after going to the trouble of killing the deer?  Would the hunter return to claim what remained?  We did not linger to find out.

*

When I was a child visiting my grandfather in Idaho, we said grace before meals. Grandpa spent most of his career working in Africa as a physician and missionary for the Lutheran church.  He dreamt in vivid detail and often recounted his dreams at the breakfast table: wild tales of hunting and harrowing near-death experiences, the tableau of his memories translated into the larger-than-life adventures of his subconscious mind.  Grandpa hunted and fished for sustenance as well as survival. Saying grace was his way of honoring the providence of his Lord.  The naked affront of flesh on the trail brought his voice back to me.

We thank you, Lord, for this meal we are about to receive and for the blessings you give to us each day…

Heavenly Father, we thank you for the sustenance you provide to our bodies and to our souls…

Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest. Let these gifts to us be blessed…

*

Winter brings deer down from the mountains into our high desert valley.  Their trails scissor the deep, impacted snow.  They nibble at bare hedges and bound fences easily.  The deer congregate in clusters, trotting past the house, lingering underneath the trampoline with luminous black eyes, watchful but emboldened.

Coco invariably barks at them.  I’ve seen Coco confront a doe, who held eye contact with the dog, lifting and lowering her head repeatedly as if to say, Don’t cross me, runt. I suspect the doe’s powerful hooves would trump Coco’s teeth in a fight.  Exiles of the snow, the deer seek what sustenance they can find, wherever and however they can find it.

There was a time when I, the reformed Yankee, frowned upon hunting. But time and knowledge changed me.  If deer in our valley proliferated unchecked, they would render our gardens bare without so much as a guilty exhale, clearing trees and shrubs of foliage, chewing lettuces flat to the ground. My friend – a true Renaissance man who bakes his own bread, bottles wine from grapes and fruits he’s grown, and gardens by principle – lost acres and months of gardening effort to a single family of deer last year despite preventative barriers. The deer ravaged his extensive garden overnight.  Deer graze everything, and they reproduce rapidly.  They multiply, despite their high rate of roadside casualties. Do I see myself hunting?  No, but I understand the practicality of hunting in my area.

*

As a meat eater, albeit an occasional one, I acknowledge my complicity in the demise of animals who, while not hunted, are born and raised to give their lives for my supper.  I may not wield the gun, but I purchase and consume the spoils.  The plastic-wrapped parcels I buy are a different version of the same primal hunger.  Meat is flesh; organs are organs. The bare leg on the trail confronted me with this humbling reminder.

My grandfather died years ago, and my practice of saying grace at the table died with him.  His spirit has not left me, however, so instead I practice gratitude, sprinkling my thanks on plates of crunchy fried chicken and seasoning my meals with care.

The deer distressed me. Is it common for hunters to leave unwanted meat? Are deer legs undesirable cuts, and if so, why go to the trouble of skinning an entire leg only to leave it, carelessly strewn in the woods? Why make the effort of killing the animal, only to waste such a considerable part of it?  It struck me as an appalling lack of regard: towards other humans and, more importantly, the deer itself. I think I heard my grandfather’s voice that day to tether me, to remind me of what it means to be grateful.  His voice rustled through the pale leaves, whispering condolences for a loss wholly lacking grace.

© Julia Moris-Hartley, 2013

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Hummingbird Juice

Photo courtesy of Rory Hartley.

Photo courtesy of Rory Hartley.

In 1969, my grandfather built a log cabin in Featherville, a small town in central Idaho.  The cabin overlooks the south fork of the Boise River and its porch is, in my opinion, one of the pleasantest places in which to squander entire summer afternoons.  I sit on the cabin’s dusty wooden porch and try to read, though I am often distracted by the swooped flight of the osprey that’s built its nest on the opposite river bank or the low hum of a hummingbird hovering just over my head, suckling from a freshly filled feeder.

Each year, I look forward to hanging the feeder.  The hummingbirds arrive minutes after I’ve hung it, usually in rotating quantities of four or five: copper and shimmering; pale, silken beige; emerald and ruby-throated. I admire their slender necks, their Lilliputian black feet.  They chatter on high pine branches, dive-bombing each other with their tails flared.  Evolution has granted them more personality per centimeter than any animal I can think of.  I watch them with wonder, and try to memorize the buzzing rumble of their wings to recollect on a snowy winter’s day.  They speak to me of joy.

I was particularly glad to see the hummingbirds again this summer, because last year the cabin came uncomfortably close to burning down.  Someone flipped their four-wheeler on the dry tinderbox of Idaho’s mountains, and the heat from the exhaust pipe inadvertently sparked a forest fire that threatened thousands of acres and hundreds of multi-generational family homes and businesses. For weeks, fed by fiery sparks of grief and dread, I awaited the inevitable news: Sorry, ma’am, the fire claimed your family’s cabin. We tried our best, but in the end there was nothing we could do to save it.  September was a long, hopeless month.

I’ve been coming to the cabin since I was a baby.  As a child, I didn’t realize that a manmade structure could assume a living, breathing identity, though in my experience it has. I can’t fathom my family’s history – or myself – without the cabin: its pale pastel walls, like an osmotic tonic; the scratchy moss green couch; the brown checkered linoleum and mismatched rugs; the remnants, relics, and artwork collected during my grandfather’s medical career in China and Africa.  These details are enfolded into innumerable Moris stories and memories.  I can’t imagine a summer without this particular porch or hummingbird feeder.

Ultimately, the awful news never came.  Firefighters wrested control of the flame as it hovered on the edge of evacuated towns, leaving residents their homes and livelihoods in tact… for now.  The relief, however real, hasn’t eradicated my dread over the cabin’s impermanence or the irrational rage that flares each time a four-wheeler rides past the front porch.  This temporary reprieve tastes of tarred ash.

My riverside musings are a little heavier this year, sagging under the weight of erosion and lost tree limbs, but I take solace in admiring my spritely hummingbird friends.  Now more than ever, I hold tight to the sight of them to help sustain me through the next long year. I pray this won’t be my last batch of hummingbird juice.

Hummingbird Juice

4 cups water
1 cup sugar
Red food coloring to preference

Bring water to boil in a medium saucepot.  Remove from heat when water starts to boil and stir in the sugar. Mix well to dissolve the sugar.  Add red food coloring – a few drops should suffice. (This is an aesthetic choice. My aunt doesn’t color her hummingbird juice and she experiences a moderate turnout.  I attribute my heavy traffic to the red food coloring.)  Let cool, then transfer to a glass feeder.  Hang feeder in a conspicuous outdoor spot.  Enjoy.

© Julia Moris-Hartley, 2013

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Fortune Cookies

A scholar's writing lasts longer than a martyr's blood.

A scholar’s writing lasts longer than a martyr’s blood.

You have an excellent sense of humor. Lucky number: 13

I have a moderate book problem.  I inherited my addiction from my father, who suffers from a severe, raging book problem.  He spends hundreds of dollars on books each month, scouring book-buying clubs for the newest titles, the latest, greatest publications to acquire.  He views his acquisitions in terms of collections, and is continually searching for ways in which to improve his collections. His Africa collection is exhaustive, as are his Peoples of the World and Peoples of the American Southwest. He taught these subjects at Utah State University throughout my youth.

I go on book binges, but have not yet reached a point in my life where I can afford or find room to house hundreds of dollars worth of book purchases.  My only prized “collection” – of food writing and cookbooks – falls far short of comprehensive. Sometimes I make second-hand purchases, a practice my father finds reprehensible.  I can’t help myself.  Books comfort me.  I love their distinct printed smell, the silken heft of their pages.  I do not feel settled unless I can see their colorful spines, lined up in rows on my bookshelves and arranged alphabetically by author’s last name or, in the case of anthologies, alphabetically by book title.

Can a love of words really be transmitted through a genetic line?  My dad and I both love to read in general.  We’ll read anything we can get ahold of, and spend all day doing it if time and circumstance permit.  Though I didn’t grow up in my father’s house, we cultivated our relationship over summer breaks.  My mother showed little interest in books and she sometimes teased me – not maliciously – about my reading habit, which causes me to wonder if I picked it up casually through observation of my father (whose houses over the years were technically libraries with beds, measured in linear shelf space rather than square footage) or whether there’s something to the theory of genetic transmission.

Your smile lights up a room. Lucky number: 2005

Another thing I inherited from my dad: a button nose.  I got my mother’s hazel eyes, and my father’s round chipmunk cheeks and pert nose.  My sister and brother are also blessed with the nose.  I used to like my nose passively; it was something that made my face seem less plain in photographs, though I gave little regard to it otherwise.

A large black Chow subdivided my nose in 2005.  Thirty-seven stitches later, I retained a nose, with a board instead of a button.  It healed into something wholly unremarkable, except for the thin vein of white scar tissue that flashes like lightning over the bridge.  I actively appreciate my nose now.  Had I been standing an inch to the right or left, I might have been severely disfigured or blinded.

Recently, my daughter, who is six years old, contracted mono. (We live on the campus of a boarding school, and, as such, germs befriend one another quickly.)  I have never before been so acutely aware of her spleen.  The weight and worth of my daughter’s existence catapulted to the forefront of my mind.  Simple tasks like riding her bicycle to school or competing in team sports are out of the question for the time being.  Nothing is worth risking the rupture of this small internal organ.

The body is such a miracle.  My daughter will recover.  My nose remains in tact.   Sometimes it’s the misfortunes that make us feel fortunate.

You have lovely eyes. Lucky number: 2

As a writer, I rely on my eyes to gather the visual details I tuck away for later: the tufted dandelion sprout, floating in the air; the crooked upturned arm of my spiny blue cactus; the silhouette of a horned owl, high up in a tree against the blush of sunset.  My eyes revel in my son’s playful smile; they drink in my daughter’s freckled cheeks.  They are vessels that carry the words I read onto the vast, curvaceous rivers of my mind.  If the day’s first blessing is waking up, the next true blessing must be opening one’s eyes to the possibilities of a new day. Thanks be.

You are an enigma. Lucky number: ?

Research for this essay returned me to a book I hadn’t read in years: Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club.  In a chapter titled “Double Face,” one of Tan’s characters, Lindo Jong, recounts sifting through potential fortunes at the fortune cookie-making factory where she once worked, in the hope of finding one that would elicit a marriage proposal from her beau.  She selected a fortune that read: “A house is not home when a spouse is not at home.”  Her clever plan succeeded.  The next day, her boyfriend asked, “Lindo, can you spouse me?”

My research also brought me to an article about the largest producer of fortune cookies, Wonton Food, Inc., which distributed over four million cookies a day in 2005.  That amounts to nearly a billion and a half cookies annually!  Who eats them all?  My theory is that most people – excluding children, who would eat cardboard if it tasted moderately sweet – are more interested in the fortunes than the golden cookies themselves.  Sometimes the messages resonate; sometimes it’s the lucky numbers. In 2005, lucky numbers won 110 people sums of approximately $100,000 each in a single day’s Powerball drawing.  The accompanying fortune?  “All the preparation you’ve done will finally be paying off.”

I don’t harbor strong feelings about fortune cookies, but I love the intrigue they hold within.  Maybe if I had taken the time to read a fortune on the day of my new nose, it would have read: “Beware of inauspicious strangers.  The admiration of their beauty wields a deleterious cost.”

All the preparation you’ve done will finally be paying off. Lucky number: 2013

My dad once advised me to prepare to hold at least three professions in life.  The changing world, he said, required adaptability.  To date, I’ve worked in about twelve positions – with vastly different titles and responsibilities – without interruption (and sometimes simultaneously).   My love of words has threaded through each of my professional incarnations.  I am very grateful to possess a skill that benefits myself as well as others, and buoys me, despite sharp changes in the economy and employment rates.

Right now, I teach Humanities to a gregarious group of middle school students.  I have no idea how I got so lucky in this latest gig: not only do I get to read and write, I get to geek out about reading and writing with young, enthusiastic minds!  Together, we explore worlds that are so different from our own with characters who are so similar to us.  I love when my students ask questions about the text and I can literally see their imaginations flare.

I do not know what the new school year will look like for me, but I hope that the long weekends of lesson planning and grading will pay off.  I hope that this year of channeling my own creativity into the creativity of others will not have been in vain.  In truth, I have missed the freedom to write and read on my own schedule.  I have missed marching into the grocery store; sweeping ingredients into my arms, like long lost lovers; and coming home to a joyous orgy of cooking and photography.  But I have also cultivated positive relationships with seventeen great students.  I’ve learned a lot about what it means to be a teacher… and learned that the process of learning never really ends. Nor does the adaptability of my spirit.

I face the fortune ahead of me with gratitude and optimism.  My love of words has yet to let me down.

© Julia Moris-Hartley 2013

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Thanks Be

Dear Mary Frances,
Thank you for pioneering the genre of food writing.  Your smart prose blazed the way for thousands of writers today – most significantly, female writers –stripping stigma from a field once thought to be solely esoteric and reminding us that food offers so much more than its nutritional content.  Your writing rallies interest in the pleasures, no matter how modest, of the plate.  I have read The Art of Eating at least half a dozen times, and I always discover new meaning with each reading.  You are my idol.

Cher Jean Anthelme,
Your immortal words set the tone for each episode of Iron Chef.  What would the tone of the show have been without them?  Would Chairman Kaga have appeared so Chairman-ish?  The Iron Chefs so ennobled?  Your keen attention to the virtues of culinary enjoyment is rivaled only by your witty social commentary.  I really appreciate that level of attention.  I’ve been wondering… If I believe that wine, cheese, and bread are major food groups, does that mean I’m actually French?  Do tell, do tell.

Dear Julia,
I’m thankful that we share a common first (and nick) name.  I’ve often envied what I’ve read about your marriage to Paul.  He wrote you lyrical love poems for your birthday, for goodness sake!  Together, you created personalized valentines to share with friends each year.  You had what truly seemed like a passionate storybook relationship.  I envy that.  But I also envy – perhaps I should say admire – your robust sensuality.  You would have been so fun to party with! I would have loved to watch you at work in the kitchen.  Sometimes I pretend to be you. (My daughter, Rory, finds these reenactments hilarious.) I think of you every time I accidentally drop a piece of food.  Thank you for making it okay to use the five second rule.

Dear Laurie,
Your writing gave me the idea to host a tea party in honor of my daughter’s birthday.  As I draped beaded garlands over the lights and scattered lavender buds across the table, I thought I heard your voice calling out in singsong approval.  Thank you for writing about your daughter with warmth and affection.

Dear Calvin,
Though I think your wife, Alice, was spot on when she coined the term “food crazies,” and though chances are likely that I am one myself, I appreciate your sustained interest in all things food-related. Thank you for being a “food crazy.” Your version of the first Thanksgiving is far better than the one I learned in elementary school.  I fully support your campaign to make spaghetti carbonara the official Thanksgiving dish.

Dear Harold,
You know you’ve got real cred when chefs all over the world refer to your tome as their “McGee,” as in, “I’ve got my McGee right here!”  I thank you for your tome and your cred. You’ve helped me through many a food inquiry.  I hope you don’t find this too creepy, but I think of you as Uncle McGee.  You seem like the type of person I’d enjoy spending time with on my deck.  As the sun descends over the western mountains, I might casually turn to you and say, “So, Uncle McGee?  Tell me the story about when you wrote your book.  Did you have a grant to fund your daily expenses as you researched?”  And you might chuckle, take a sip of your Malbec, and say, “Well, it all started back in the eighties….”

Dear Jeff,
You are an enigma when you guest-judge on Iron Chef America and Top Chef.  You share the same name as one of my first “real” crushes, a sous chef named Jeff who worked at the finest dining establishment in my college town.  The state he left me in was not funny, but you are.  Thank you for giving your assistant a comically disproportionate amount of work to do and for fielding so many marriage proposals. Thank you for accidentally poisoning yourself with taro leaf and writing about it with humor.

Dear Jane,
Mushrooms, onions, butter, sour cream, and dill…  Who knew? I serve your sour cream sauce over a big bowl of rice.  The mushrooms whisper, “We are so happy,” and so am I.  Thank you for loving fungi enough to dedicate an entire book to them.

Dear Tony,
I started watching your television show before I read any of your work.  I (unfairly) assumed you had writers.  Then I read your books, and your writing bowled me over. I couldn’t believe it!  Your prose is tight!  I haven’t had the good fortune to travel the world like you, but your writing amazed me with its ability to make me ravenous.  I’ve never tried pho, and yet I feel as if I have tasted it with you on the streets of Vietnam.  In my imagination, we traipsed across the globe throughout A Cook’s Tour, loosening our belts and belching happily.  I was your Zamir.  Thank you for making me hungry.  Even though No Reservations is over, never stop being hungry for more, okay?

Cher Jean Louis,
Will you ever find me indispensable? I think the world of you and would gladly be your scribe.  Thank you for renewing the zeal of my Francophilia.

Dear Readers,
Thank you for reading my work. I’ve been busy with a new job and haven’t been in the kitchen as much as I’d like, but I really appreciate all of your continued support. I am thankful for you.  Happy Thanksgiving!

Love, Jules

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Love Song

Isn't she lovely?

“There!” says Rory, pushing flaxen strands of hair away from her face and waving a sheet of paper in the air. “My birthday wist is done!” I have been watching Rory work on this list for half an hour, divining birthday inspiration from the air with a wandering pointer finger, her tongue poking out sideways from between her lips.  She turns five in April. Her wish list includes happy face balloons, a “Barbie Girl cake from Target,” bowling, Angry Birds (the pig is worth 105 points, she adds; the bird, 109), a scavenger hunt, pizza and Cheetos, Wuggle Pets, and a 6-volt battery-operated princess convertible. “And that’s all I want on my birthday!”

Rory was born sweet, almost preternaturally so: communicating her pleasure with the wiggles and flexes of her toes, pressing herself into the tucks of our arms, asking to sit in our “waps” and begging to be tickled.  She surrenders herself to mischief and joy; she laughs with her entire body.  Her latest infatuation is tricking my husband into looking away – usually by distraction – and then punching him in the face. (I warned him not to encourage her, but he finds it endlessly amusing and so, apparently, does Rory.) Her sweetness makes it difficult to deny her of the objects that captivate her, which typically involve bright colors, princesses, Hello Kitty, or sparkles – sometimes all at once.  Financial necessity demands that I be strict, though I don’t want to be: I love to revel in the radiant glow of her smile.  When I turn her down, her eyes brim with enormous tears.  Her shoulders slump forward as she walks away, slowly dragging her feet along the floor, the picture of defeat.  But even then she remains sweet to the core. “I wuv you, mom,” she says, curling into my lap at the end of the day.  “I wuv you even though you didn’t get me the Wuggle Pets at Target.”

*

My mom used to tell me that I was a sweet little girl.  I wish I had pressed her for specific details.  Did I sing the way Rory does: a soft birdsong that warbles and flaps like a little finch in the spring?  Did expressions light my face, eliciting enchantment from anyone lucky enough to witness the flutter of bright golden green eyes or the freckles I adore so much in Rory?  Did I cup my thin fingers over my mouth while giggling, or waggle my elbows while doing the chicken dance around the dinner table?  Did I smile to wake up each morning?  Perhaps, as with many things, the overriding impression supplanted the precise details and mom wouldn’t have remembered.  But I should have asked, because now there isn’t anyone to answer these questions the way my mother would have.

*

Being able to stay home with Rory is a treasure for which I am immeasurably grateful.  I missed an important chapter of my son’s youth while I worked full-time, precious years of Kai’s toddlerhood I can’t ever recapture.  I remind myself of this whenever I start to feel guilty or anxious about my decision to be, first and foremost, a mom.  Staying home allows me to celebrate Rory’s lovely, tender beauty.  I get to witness her kindness: how she tucks in her stuffed animals each night; how she treats her favorite toy – a tattered grey-blue Eeyore hand puppet that she’s had since she was born – like her child, eagerly ascending the stairs to see it and calling out, “Oh, Puppet Eeyore!  I’m hoooome!” I see Rory as an emissary for good: delivering hugs, high fives, and muppet-like cheer (in her inexplicable New York accent) to the students who attend the school where my husband works.  I live in a blessing.

I’ve kept a journal for Rory, committing myself to actively remembering the details I know I will forget.  (I also keep one for my son, Kai.)  I’d forgotten how, as a baby, Rory smelled like French bread.  She gave me such powerful cravings in utero that I referred to her as the Barracuda.  I forgot that she was born on Good Friday and slept through the night at two months.  She flapped her arms like a bird for the first time at seven months and hasn’t stopped since.  I forgot that Kai used to refer to her as “Beddy Woody” (Baby Rory), and that Rory used to call her Eeyore “Yeye.”  I don’t want to forget that this morning, Rory lifted the edge of the living room rug, found a penny, and exclaimed, “Hey, mom!  Wook!  I’m a wucky ducky!” I don’t want to forget that these ordinary, seemingly uneventful days will become the deeply rooted memories that shape their growing lives. The journals help me remember.

*

Rory has been picking out her clothes and dressing herself since she was three.  I usually do not intervene because I respect how she chooses to express herself.  She coordinates her clothes by color and theme, and she is quick to compliment others on their fashion choices.  Rory knows how to rock a look.  Last week, her preschool hosted pajama day.  Rory opted to wear her two-piece, neon pink, button-down Dora pajamas, though she has several other pairs of pajamas that are much easier to put on and are more comfortable.  She accessorized her pajamas with blue and white snow boots and a pair of purple Hello Kitty sunglasses.  On that day, her clothes did not match, but it didn’t matter because she didn’t care… and neither did I.  Rory strutted.

We went to the grocery store after I picked her up from preschool. I handed Rory one of the store’s wheeled baskets.  She pulled it behind her as we shopped, backing it up (“Beep, beep, beep!”) and maneuvering it from side to side.  At checkout, she almost toppled over as she lifted a gallon of milk from the cart, insisting: “I can do it, mom.  I can do it!”  She placed the pork loin, basil leaf, blueberries, and sliced provolone on the conveyer belt.  The cashier smirked at me over the register.  As we left, Rory said, “You carry the milk, and I’ll take the bags.”  I dutifully carried the gallon of milk.  She hoisted a bag in each of her hands with a Schwarzenegger-worthy grunt, and carried the bags out to the car.  When we arrived home, she brought in the bags, set them down on the beige kitchen floor, smiled up at me, and said, “I’m a good shoppa, right mom?”

“Yes, dear, you’re wonderful,” I said, reaching out to smooth her hair, which wisps in a perpetual shroud of static electricity.

“I’m a good cooka, too, right mom?”

“The best,” I said, smiling.  “You keep cooking with me and you might become the next Julia Child!”

Rory nodded.  “Okay!”  Retrieving her apron from where we’ve tied it to the pantry, she put the apron on and said, “Okay, so first we put our hair back and wash our hands, right?”  Then she went to the bathroom to get her step-stool.

We assembled the necessary ingredients and made small cheesecake-inspired fruit tarts to hand out to students and faculty at the school.  The tarts were a hit, but it was Rory’s response that pleased me the most.  She licked the cupcake liner clean and gathered the crust crumbs that had fallen on the table.  “Mommy,” she raved, “this is the most dewicious cheesecake you’ve ever made!  I can’t bewieve how good this is!”

*

My mom didn’t have the luxury of staying home with my sister or me; as a single mom, she did everything she could do to survive.   Now that I have had the opportunity to work from home and be present in the lives of my children as they grow, I understand what a luxury it truly is to view life as a celebration of emotional and spiritual well-being, a repository for memories that I would never dare erase. Rory reminds me everyday.

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My Favorite Things

How do you catch a cloud and pin it down?

Some of my happiest childhood memories involve The Sound of Music.  My grandparents had the soundtrack on LP at the family cabin in Featherville, Idaho.  Since the cabin didn’t have televisions, its primary entertainment source was the record player, on which my sister, Lisa, and I played records in heavy rotation.  Grandpa had amassed an eclectic collection in the years before LPs grew to near extinction, but our favorites were The Nutcracker and The Sound of Music.  Late at night, with the curtains flung open and moths fluttering against the lighted windows, Lisa and I leapt from avocado green sofa to sofa: hair flying and limbs flailing, like sugarplum fairies gone wild.  We waltzed on tiptoes through the kitchen, humming “Edelweiss.”  We pirouetted around the dining table, wire whisks raised in our hands, our voices warbling: “How do you solve a problem like Mariiiaaaaaaaa? How do you hold a moon beam… in your… haaaaaannnndd?”

When I was sixteen (going on seventeen), Lisa flew to Boise during a break from medical school in Geneva to join me on a tour of colleges in the Pacific Northwest.  We drove the silver Tercel that Grandpa had “sold” to me.  It was an old, no-frills hatchback, but it was mine and I named it Orby, after one of Grandpa’s mischievous brothers.  As Lisa and I left Boise, heading west toward the highway, we stopped at a red light at the intersection of Milwaukee and Emerald.  The engine hummed quietly through the floorboards.  Summer wind blew through the car, the late afternoon sun warm on our legs. I couldn’t wait to start the trip and see the Oregon coast one more time, but as I stared down at my frayed denim shorts and freckled legs, I felt intense heat rise up my neck.  My forehead and cheeks burned.  Lisa looked at me with wide green eyes, the skin on her breastbone mottled with pink blossoms.  Ever responsible, Lisa ran through a shortlist of concerns:  Was the car overheating?  Did we have heatstroke?  Was this an allergic reaction?  What had we eaten for lunch?  Was there a bee in the car?  Did we need to turn around and go to a hospital?  We cranked the AC and started to roll up the windows.  Then we saw them: two good-lookin’ dudes perched high in a jeep in the next lane, peering down into our car with identical lopsided grins.  Lisa and I had been singing “The Lonely Goatherd.”

Goatherd incident withstanding, Lisa and I were accustomed to performing because we had a captive audience of family members staying at the cabin with us each summer, among them our enabler: Grandpa. Our cousins made excuses to go down to the river; uncle Don shuffled through the papers in his briefcase, squinting behind drugstore reading glasses; and Dad sequestered himself in the attic, illuminated by a single bare light bulb, tapping out manuscripts and textbooks on the manual typewriter he kept by his bed.  Aunt Sylvia sat on the flowery corduroy couch in the corner, knitting.  Grandpa had a talent for fixing his blue eyes on the pages of whatever he read, but every now and again, he lifted his gaze to smile at us.  Grandpa remained spry well into his 80s.  On really good nights, he sprung from his armchair and joined Lisa and me, bending at the knees and hooking his fingers into the imaginary suspenders on his chest, as we bobbed and sang, “Lay-oh-de-lay-oh-de-lay-hee-hoo!”

Grandpa was the first person to believe in my ability to write and he encouraged me to explore my talents, unprofitable though they might turn out to be.  He dreamed of writing fiction, and he bequeathed his unpublished stories to me when he died; the note affixed to the large manila folder read: “Keep writing!”  I also inherited my favorite of his belongings: a big, comfortable, tufted reading chair made out of I’m not sure what.  The chair is slippery and caramel brown, and it exhales a soothing pffft when occupied.  Its generous head- and armrests provide ample space for sleeping cats and reading material.  I like to sit in it sideways, my legs flung over the armrest, an avalanche of food books fallen around me, Lilycat coiled into a tight ball of white hair and purring on my lap.  I imagine Grandpa dozing in the chair, snoring softly, a book resting against his chest.  After his death, it felt less like losing him to keep something so big and enfolding near to me, something that felt almost as comforting as the soft scratch of his blue cardigan against my face when he pulled me into a bear hug.

Even as a young girl, before I became aware that it was possible for adults to be goofy, impetuous, mischievous, charmingly self-mocking, or wryly sardonic, I admired Maria’s little whimsies.  I admired the compulsion that drove her to rush to mountain peaks, singing at top volume with her skirt a-twirl.  I admired that she walked away from her faith for a reason that felt important to her.  (Not so much that she did it – at the prodding of the Mother Abbess, no less! – for a decorated military official with a cork up his butt, but at least she forsook her religion for a true passion.)  The von Trapp children adored her.  She was the kind of woman I aspired to be: tenacious, intelligent, resolute, and given to affection, deep emotion, and song.

I watch The Sound of Music every year at Thanksgiving because it is so entwined with the things I associate with love and showing appreciation.  Maria had her list of favorite things, and I have mine.  Thanksgiving gives me the outlet to freely and openly sing praise to everyone and everything I love, which makes it my favorite holiday.  I’m so thankful for my family, children, and incredible friends; for our collective good health, our jobs, our happiness, and our quirks and talents.  I’m thankful for all the things I have learned and will learn in my life.  But most of all, this year, I’m thankful for a life history that is woven together so tightly and completely that I can’t celebrate one memory without also giving thanks for so many others.

Thanks for believing in me, Grandpa.

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