Writer’s Notebook

Potato Chip Maker

On our walk to school in the morning, we sometimes take a shortcut through the small barranca that lies just off the center of town. At the bottom of the barranca runs the aguas negras–a small, polluted stream that may or may not be full of sewage. Plastic bottles and styrofoam plates squat in the collection of soap bubbles that collect on the dark water as it snakes through the canyon. This is our reminder that Mexico is still a developing country. Small clay pebbles scatter in front of us we quickly and carefully pick our way down the small dirt path.

At the bottom is small cement footbridge that takes us across the aguas negras and just on the other side of the bridge lies a cement house. Well, it’s a tall cement building. On the top floors are some business that are out of the barranca. But in the bottom floor lives a family with small children and a smattering of hungry looking cats. Our pace quickens here because it feels a little like we’re walking through their living room. The building are constructed closely, and the high walls make the space feel small, almost intimate. There are usually a few plastic toys scattered around and sometimes a few young kids stare at us as we pass. The kitchen is open and wash basin is usually full. I have tried extending a friendly “buenos dias” but have never gotten a reply.

The adults are usually busy when we pass. The man of the house makes a living by frying up potato chips in a giant make-shift fryer. A large oil drum is cut in half and filled with oil, heated by a gas tank that is almost as tall as the man who fries the chips. Potato chips are a common street snack–with chile, limon and sal, of course and you can find a small plastic bag of them nearly everywhere. I wonder if I’ve ever eaten the ones fried here, by this silent man with bed head, a dirty white shirt, and the ganas to wake up and start cooking a mountain of potatoes.

There is always a heavy bag of dusty potato propped up against the house as pass and the man is usually warming up the oil. A few times he’s been peeling potatoes as we pass, and one particularly late morning he was scooping them out of the oil with a giant mesh spoon. The smell is reminds me of county fairs and carnival rides–a memory oddly incongruent in this place.

We hurry past, feeling a little embarrassed..for what? For witnessing his work? His house? The aguas negras? Or for walking through someone’s front yard because we want to hurry to school.

Writer’s Notebook

I found this tucked away on my computer the other morning. I was happy to find an apt metaphor for tomatillos–“they hang on their vines like Chinese lanterns.” I do miss the farm as we move into spring and summer.

The other morning when I drove to the farm, I had to use the heater. I was glad I threw my sweatshirt into the backseat before I drove off that morning because when I got out of the car I was downright chilly. Cool mornings, curling leaves, evenings as crisp as apples—where has the summer gone?

So seasons change–the basil thickens, the dill goes to seed, and our time on the farm draws to a close. But what makes this year different from the rest is I find myself wanting to curl into my thoughts and think what does it all mean?

I leave the farm with more friends and thicker calluses. This I know. I take with me mud stained jeans and an intense desire to own chickens. I search my mind for the scientific facts I have learned about vermiculite and cotyledon, only to find my thoughts clustered around the mystery of a flowering eggplant and the majesty of the tomato blight. I won’t forget the way tomatillos hang on their vines like Chinese lanterns, delicate and airy—but I have forgotten the acute ache in my back that comes from hand planting leeks.

Our friends and family want to know what the next step is. That’s fair. We did set this whole summer up as a “trial period” and I guess we wanted an “if then” statement to come out of the experience as well. I guess I’m learning that if you grow your own food, then it tastes better. If some seedlings don’t make it, then you are still thankful for the ones that did. If you find a turnip riddled by worms, then you cut around and salvage the good parts. And if you want to feel the seasons pass, you gotta get outside.

I found a soup recipe that uses potatoes, kale, basil, dill, and leeks. As I chopped and sautéed and pureed, I felt the kitchen air grow heavy with the humid heat of a good soup. I was cooking for a friend and the excitement of sharing good food with a good friend, made me salivate with anticipation. I dipped my spoon into the thick as pudding, potato leek soup and brought it steaming to my lips. I felt the aroma moisten my nose as I gently blew on it. It tasted like accomplishment with pinch of gratitude.

What I wrote before I turned 40

I found this in my google drive and it transported me to that magical fall before Zev was born.

All of the trees in our yard have shed their leaves, except one. One stubborn tree. Some of its leaves are still green, but the top ones are tinged red and I know it will only be a few more weeks before it, too, will be nothing but branches.

A few weeks ago the world was awash in color. Reds, yellows, and oranges against a blue, blue, impossibly blue, sky. The world feels different when it is so yellow, when the green is gone and hillsides become crisp and golden. Almost suddenly the slanted sun seems softer, less oppressive, and the world is one deeply drawn breath of fresh air. Ah…..fall.

When Robert Frost wrote  “Then leaf subsides to leaf/ So Eden sank to grief/ So dawn goes down to day/Nothing gold can stay” he was probably talking about Spring. But in my head I always picture the golden leaves of Fall. They drop and float down, almost imperceptibly–the glorious crown of a tree one day and then nothing but brown litter on your lawn the next. The leaves and with them, Fall, blow away with the winter wind. Nothing gold can stay.

This year, the beginning of my 40th year, I’m feeling the poetry of Fall more acutely. Since I was born on the precipice of winter, I’ve always known that  “nothing gold can stay.” But I’m feeling it increasingly in my bones.

I have one fall baby. The last baby. And I remember vividly watching my first son play in the leaves as we waited for his brother to be born. He would “choo-choo” through waist high piles of yellow and orange, the rustle of leaves matching the shuffle of his little feet. He was oblivious to the giant leap in maturity he would be forced to take any day. Instead the wind took his blond hair, turned impossibly golden by the fall afternoon sunlight, and lifted it, making a little rooster tail out of his bangs.

Robert Frost kept echoing through my head. Nothing gold can stay. Things are going to change. But let him run one more time around the park, kicking the leaves and laughing. Let him be oblivious to the setting fall sun.  

I know I’m not old. But nothing gold can stay. Things are going to change. And I see that I can’t run like I used to without a nagging pain in my hip. My back can get thrown out and my toes turn numb in my high-heeled boots. But please let me stay oblivious to the setting fall sun. 

I’m not dreading my 40’s. But I’m just not ready to say goodbye to my 30’s. It’s hard to say goodbye to the decade that brought me motherhood, to the decade where I settled into life. It feels like a golden decade.

And nothing gold can stay.

And this pairs well with what I wrote on the occasion of my 40th birthday.

To say goodbye to my 30’s, I made a list of 30 things that I loved to do. And because I’m a girl who loves a “to do list,” in the weeks leading up to my birthday I made a conscious effort to do them. They ranged from spectacular—swim in the ocean, to very simple, pause and look up at the stars if I come home after it’s gotten dark. There was a lot of food on the list—eat super delicious brownies, eat a slice of freshly baked bread and some that involved other people—play soccer with Zev, listen to Dave play the piano. A few pushed me–like try something new and others I could melt into—get a massage.

So the last couple of weeks have been full of mini-celebrations, moments like when I look down at the milk swirling in my tea and think, “Happy Birthday, self!” or when I’m talking on the phone to my cousin and I think, “Yes, this is a gift—a gift for my birthday!” And what I’ve realized is that, in fact, my days are full of gifts. Then, when I look back over my 40 years, they are a wonder, not because I’ve done anything spectacular but the exact opposite; I have thousands of ordinary and truly breathtaking moments. Like a highlight reel—that’s just for me. The first bite of warm gingersnap, the softness of Lalo’s hair when I kiss his freshly shampooed head at night, Mae hitching up her pants, the smell of Dave’s shirt before I toss it in the washing machine. I’m so grateful. I’m hoping to savor them more in my new decade. I’m going to slow down, take a deep breath and say, “Right now—this one—this is a gift to me.”