you do not have to be good

I miss you. I just had to come here to tell you that.

I am also going to share a poem, which is typically more Lindsey’s thing than mine (and I am grateful to her for all the poetry she shares). I am posting this poem because I have read it every day since hearing Mary Oliver read it in an episode of On Being. You should listen to that interview right now, as a matter of fact. But before you do that, let me tell you why I’m reading it every day. Moving—perhaps especially, moving at the end of the school year—has a way of bringing up many emotions. The two most prominent, and least helpful, are rage and anxiety (or in terms of the five emotions of Inside Out, anger and fear), but nostalgia, joy, and sadness bubble up too now and again. This poem, tho.

 

 

Wild Geese by Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

(Author’s note: photo is by my cousin Alice, the farmer in Portugal whose photos I am always sharing, especially the birds)

hasty pudding

Vivi’s intense brown eyes are trained on me like you would stare at a mosquito about to land on your arm, unblinking, not wanting to miss the point of contact of her words. She has just reminded me she likes the white grits best. A stranger—well, let’s just say it, a Yankee—might not catch her meaning, but I do. This is a talk I usually enjoying having, at these times when she picks up on my special otherness, my Southernness, and wants to prove that she understands me.

Feeling her gaze, I glance up, my view obscured by my bare legs bent at odd angles ahead of me as I lie propped in her small bunk. Just beyond my feet is the crook of her mostly-naked body, which attempts to reach as much of the cool evening air coming through her bedroom window as possible. It is June in Boston, a month that cannot decide from day to day whether to be summer or winter. Forget about spring, we seem to have lost that season amidst the snow. Strands of her sweaty hair are stuck together and stand almost straight up, giving her brown bob a flock-of-seagulls look. At a newly seven years old, she is only beginning to see her nakedness as something to shield; she picks a private stall at the YMCA to change for swimming. But she still lets me see her, for now.

There is no mistaking her look of determination, but I pretend not to have understood the urgency of her message. I want to finish this chapter. Flipping forward a few pages, I see we’re almost there. Laura is describing preparations for the big dance at Grandpa’s house, during which Ma serves the family warm hasty pudding with maple syrup drizzled on top. Vivi’s declaration of love for white grits came just after my explanation—an answer to the latest question in her constant stream of curiosity—that hasty pudding is made from the yellow grits commonly found here in New England. This exchange set off her flash of recognition, a connection she now proudly makes to my previously elusive personhood beyond that of MOM, hand wiper and meal maker extraordinaire.

Though I long to join my husband on the couch downstairs—where a cold cocktail and a few minutes of relaxed conversation await, when I will probably tell him about this interchange—I am also keenly aware of the longing I once held for this moment. The simple act of reading The Little House in the Big Woods contains a lifetime of waiting and wanting, but as with most things in life, it was the process of getting here that merited the most excitement. Even after having prayed for this time as a hopeful mom-to-be, now that it is here, I am pained to admit I sometimes find myself wishing it away, the pale ghost of romantic desire now tinged with a colorful reality of exhaustion and impatience.

Instead of finishing the chapter, I shut the book. She sits up in anticipation of reigniting our old ritual, a time we used to refer to as “Talk about it,” our private chats unencumbered back then by the little sister who now sits on the floor in front of us, planning tomorrow’s outfit. “I like the white grits best too,” I say, finally, “but I’m learning to like the yellow ones.” She smiles, secure that whoever I might have been in the past, wherever I might rather be right now, I’m hers for a bit longer. I smile too, glad for one more day where she wants to be mine.

Update: A friend kindly pointed out that based on my love of recipes and wont of posting them here often, she assumed I’d include a recipe for hasty pudding and was a touch disappointed not to find one. How right she is! There’s only one problem: I’ve never made hasty pudding. But I reckon it’s the same as making grits, and I’m happy to tell you how I make mine. Within this recipe are the three keys to make perfect grits every time (for grit jokes, see: My Cousin Vinny): 1. milk 2. butter 3. slow. SLOW.

As for where you can buy white grits, my favorite place is Logan Turnpike (where, I might add, they DO sell yellow grits, I just don’t happen to like ’em much), which sells them online as well as at their mill close to Blairsville, Georgia. Bob’s Red Mill also sells them.

Self-Respecting Southern Creamy Grits
serves 4

Ingredients:
2 c. water
1 c. grits (yellow or white)
1 1/4 c. whole milk
1/4 c. butter (plus more for serving)
1 tsp. salt
pepper to taste

Directions:
1. Boil water and salt. Add grits slowly, whisking as you go, and let it return to a boil. Cover, reduce heat to medium low, and cook for about 15-20 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the liquid is incorporated.
2. Stir in milk and butter, reduce heat to very low, and cook for another 10-15 minutes until creamy and smooth.
3. Top each bowl/plate of grits with its own butter. Down south we don’t normally drizzle with maple syrup, but shoot, I can’t see that being a bad thing. Give it a shot!

try this at home: make yogurt

My friend Kristen tweeted about yogurt the other day, which got me chatting, again, about making my own. Making yogurt is my most beloved soap box kitchen topic of all time, next to my general obsession with supporting local farmers. She said she wanted to make her own, so I decided to revisit the topic again here (I grabbed a post from last year and spit-shined it for y’all).

A quick aside: Are you listening to the Happier podcast? It’s by Gretchen Rubin and guest-stars her sister, and it’s a fun way to get an inspirational boost to establishing better habits. They open with a “Try this at home” segment that I love, so my post title is a nod to their show because this post felt very advice-y along those lines.

Back to yogurt. The first time I made yogurt, it was after reaching a tipping point of friends cheering me on and reading the Urban Farm Handbook, which I recommend checking out if you like to tinker with local food. A year into my experimentation, my favorite food radio show the Splendid Table covered yogurt-making, and since then I’ve perfected my technique.

Warning: you will lose some milk in this learning process, but if you look at it as just that—a process—you will likely lose less sleep about how the finished product turns out. The longer I make it, the closer I get to 100% success. Virtually the only thing that ever goes wrong now is that I forget I’ve made a batch and leave it in the cooler too long, but you’re probably less of a space cadet than me, so you’re good. Give it a try, and let me know how it goes!

p.s. Don’t forget to stick a piece of key lime pie on it every now and then.

 

homemade yogurt
makes 2 quarts
Ingredients:
  1. 2 QT (1/2 gallon) whole milk (NOT ultra-pasteurized; see notes below directions)
  2. 1/4 c. (4 Tbs.) plain yogurt with active cultures, at room temp. (NOT containing pectin; see notes)
Tools:
  1. large heavy-bottomed pot
  2. thermometer
  3. two clean quart Ball jars or three clean spaghetti jars (sterilization isn’t necessarily, washed in the dishwasher is fine)
  4. whisk
  5. 2 c. liquid measuring cup
  6. igloo cooler
  7. bath towel or blanket
  8. a few rags or dishtowels
  9. oven mitt
Directions:
  1. Remove the starter yogurt from the fridge and let it come to room temperature during the next steps.
  2. Starting with clean jars, place them on top of a rag in your pot. The rag keeps the jars from jangling around enough to annoy you and/or crack. Fill the jars with milk, leaving 1-inch headspace at the top (the yogurt you add later will take up room). Fill the pot three-quarters full with water.
  3. Put the pot on the stove. Add the thermometer to the milk. Heat over medium-low, stirring milk once or twice, until the milk is at least 180ºF, preferably 185ºF. This will take a good hour or so. It is important not to heat the milk too fast, both for the risk of scalding and because fast heating leads to grainy, odd-textured yogurt. You aren’t heating the milk to kill any bad bacteria; the heating process just gives you a thicker yogurt. In fact, the longer you leave it at 185º, the thicker the end product will be, but even if you take it off the heat right away, it should be plenty thick.
  4. When the milk is 185ºF, you can either remove the jars from the pot to a dry dishtowel on the counter, or just turn the heat off and let them cool in the water (option #2 takes longer, but I do it when I’m home all day because it produces the best texture to cool slowly). Cool the milk to 115ºF. (Note: If you use jars, putting them in an ice bath could cause a crack.)
  5. When the milk is 115ºF, pour 1 c. milk into measuring cup and add 2 Tbs. tablespoons of yogurt (for a spaghetti jar, one Tbs. will do the trick). Whisk to combine, then pour milk back into jar and whisk again. Repeat with second jar.
  6. Screw on lids and place the jars in a blanket or towel-lined cooler. Tuck the jars under the towel like a baby taking a snug nap, and leave the jars in the cooler for at least 6 hours; I leave mine for 7-10 hours, depending on what time I notice the cooler sitting there. The longer you leave it, the tangier it will be. Transfer the jars from the cooler to the fridge to cool completely; it will thicken a bit more as it cools.

Notes:

  • Starter yogurt: I have never bought any “yogurt cultures” that are sold specifically for making yogurt at home. I began my batches with commercial plain yogurt (up here we have a delicious brand called Maple Hill Creamery, but Fage works well too). Look for a brand with just milk and active cultures, i.e., no artificial thickeners like pectin. Read the labels. Now I just make sure to save a 1/4 cup of my last yogurt before starting anew. You can also freeze a bit of yogurt as a back-up in case you forget to save it; the freezing process does not kill the active cultures.
  • Milk: Ultra-pasteurization is a process that heats the milk to an extremely high temperature very quickly, which results in a more shelf-stable product. The problem is that the heating process also changes the whey proteins so that yogurt will not set up properly. Simple pasteurization is what you’re looking for. We use whole milk from a local farm; because it doesn’t travel far, it is even cheaper than national brands of organic milk.

#Muse15: Day One

I’m posting this recap a month after attending the Muse & The Marketplace conference, which is good in that I had time to digest what I learned but bad because I’ve probably already forgotten some of it. But better late than never, I suppose! I will publish notes about days two and three in separate posts to prevent further delay.

This year was my first time attending the conference, which is put on by the non-profit writing organization Grub Street. A latecomer to the Boston writing world, I only recently learned about Grub as a resource for writers. Even though I knew I was leaving in a few months, I decided to join as a member anyway, and I plan to check out their online classes once I’m in Atlanta. From all I’ve heard and seen so far, it’s a great organization. The first day of the conference is a blur more than just because so much followed it; it also occurred after I had been up all night at a birth. I missed the first lecture and arrived just in time for the second.

Session 2: “Writing Your Memoir: What to Leave Out,” Kathleen Spivack

Kathleen Spivack was a generous teacher, making me feel at ease right away. She ignored the podium in favor of a chair at our level and immediately asked us to raise our hands if we were working on a memoir. The first shock of the conference was that almost everyone raise their hands but me. I suppose I shouldn’t have been so surprised since we were in fact in a class with memoir in the title, but I guess I thought there’d be others like me who were only dancing on the periphery of the idea.

In our first in-class writing exercise, Spivack asked us to ponder a few things about why we write memoir; firstly, “Who am I writing it for?” To figure out what to leave out, she said, you should ask yourself both, “What would I be okay with others reading?” and “What would I write if I could include everything?” and compare the two answers. A writer must be careful in deciding what to leave out because if it’s a central part of the story, the reader will know something is missing. I scribbled the following quote furiously to get it all down, so it might be a partial misquote:

Memoir is a testimony. Think about lifting it beyond the personal. Think of your book as a gift to the world. -Kathleen Spivack, #Muse15

Her final advice was a piece of wisdom I’ve been given before, but it was worth hearing again. “Write an essay version of the book,” she said, “to help organize and give it structure.” I wonder if this is how many books arrive in the world, starting as essays that ignore the writer’s pleas for brevity.

I spent lunch in quiet reflection of all the lessons I had already learned, mulling over the passages of other authors’ books they had been so bold in sharing. I flipped through the list of speakers, growing increasingly bowled over by the overflowing lists of accomplishments. I closed the booklet, took a deep breath, then opened it again from the back and noticed a place for writing thoughts and notes. I decided then to set some intentions for how I wanted the conference to go, since I could see that it would be over in a blink.

Fun exercise in the back of the #Muse2015 booklet: resolutions! No excuses; play like a champion.

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Session 3: “Ask the Editor,” Pamela Dorman

Pamela Dorman’s style was the first thing I noted about her when she began to speak. I would later note the same of many of the speakers, that they were the most comfortable in their skin and wardrobe. I am not sure which came first, the intent or the success, but I choose to believe the old adage that we should “dress for the job we want.”

Another possible reason for my eyes wandering to her wardrobe first is I was in an altered state from the all-nighter birth. I willed my brain to stay awake, but the warm room and lack of caffeine began lulling me to sleep. I eventually had to jump up and go find some coffee so I could enjoy the rest of the lecture instead of nodding off mid-sentence, so I don’t have many notes from this session.

One fun fact I learned was that Dorman started as an editorial assistant at St. Martin’s Press. She mentioned two books as examples of great works she published in various genres. The first is Kitchens of the Great Midwest, a novel by J Ryan Stradal that is being published this summer, and the second is The Middle Place, a memoir by Kelly Corrigan. She likes publishing books that are “voicy.” If it’s a memoir, it needs to read like fiction; it’s not enough to be a good story. If you really want to be noticed, make the first 25 pages “sparkle,” Dorman said.

 Session 4: “How to Write a Symphonic Conclusion,” Jacquelyn Mitchard

The first thing you should know about a talk about Mitchard is bring a recorder. Her quotable phrases fly by infinitely faster than you can write or type. She lectured with authority and charisma on the topic of ambiguous modern endings; in the 21st century, she says, books just stop instead of ending, as we focus energy instead on clever beginnings. One example I managed to jot was David Foster Wallace’s first sentence ofThe Broom of the System, “Most really pretty girls have pretty ugly feet…” (incidentally, I stumbled upon this review of the book, which I loved even more because of its spot-on mini-review of Franzen’s The Corrections at the end, which I will not affiliate-link to because it irritated me too much).

Mitchard argued writers should end with purpose, just as they do with beginnings; she offered encouragement, promising writers can be as good at endings if they see them as important. So why are there so few symphonic endings? She postulated writers and readers are both fatigued at the end of a book and have a longing for characters that clouds judgment for how the story should end. Mitchard pointed out that a good ending makes the reader feel smart and included and is generous of heart and mind. Most importantly, a great climax, conclusion, or denouement “…restores the reader to the outside world as though it’s safe to do anything.”

It’s romantic to imagine that writing is like driving in the fog, but good endings only happen if you decide how to end it. -Jacquelyn Mitchard, #Muse15

As many speakers would do throughout the conference, Mitchard reminded us of Ira Glass’ storytelling advice; describe, then reflect. She offered some examples of endings to study:

Mitchard also offered a few endings she was dissatisfied with because of a lack of focus on a good ending: Gone Girl and basically every novel by Cormac McCarthy, who she said—much to the delight of the room—tends to end his novels with random scenes like a man eating an egg.

My favorite part of the session was when Mitchard invited us into her own writing process. She said often an ending will not be working as it is. Instead of fighting it out, she suggested scraping it if it’s not working, saving it elsewhere for later, and starting fresh. She doesn’t believe in prologues or epilogues, which she said tell the reader what to think and how to feel. Of her own characters, she said:

If I left my characters alone, they would open a bag of Doritos and a can of Bud and sit on the couch doing nothing. -Jacquelyn Mitchard, #Muse15

Instead, she said she must intervene and tell them to get up and start acting like people. Contrary to common wisdom, planning doesn’t destroy creativity. Now there’s some food for thought.

Did you attend #Muse15 or read any good recaps elsewhere? Though I’m late to the recap party, I still see an occasional post pop up. I’ll link to some of my favorites in the next post.