10 years

The anniversary of my mom's death is tomorrow, and my dad wrote this really insightful reflection of what that anniversary means—

"Well 10 years tomorrow since Misty died. I've been trying to think of something profound and beautiful to say marking the occasion but the ugly reality is her passing left a huge hole in the lives of a lot of people that can never quite be filled. For me there's 18 years of memories that I largely don't have anyone else to reminisce with about. Or the sad knowledge of how much she looked forward to being a grandma which is such an exquisite rip off now that the time is here and she isn't around to enjoy it. Yes the kids grow up and the world moves on with new relationships and unforeseen adventures but it's like getting lost on a strange detour knowing I can never quite find my way back. RIP Misty I think about you every day."

The idea of a loved one's death being an unexpected journey you know you can never quite return from—it's a perfect description of the sadness that remains, even when you move on.

France Post No. 1: French Style


I am in northern France for the summer, ostensibly to work as an intern at a university but let's be honest -- I'm really here to observe. And seeing as la mode is what France is best known for in the United States (besides cheese, maybe, but that's another post), I thought that should be the first of my cultural observations on this blog.

I only have thirty minutes on this internet café computer, so this will be a largly unedited, stream-of-consciousness type post.

Side note: The internet café I'm in is a hub for teenage boys to play what looks like Dungeons and Dragons. Some things never change, no matter what country you're in. But they've got Led Zeppelin and Incubus playing over the speakers, so I'm pretty content.

First, if we're talking about well-dressed people, I think there are as many in the United States as there are here. So let's get over this idea that any one culture has a monopoly on dressing nice. That being said, there is certainly something very French about the way French women dress, though you could say just as justly that there is something distinctly American about the way American women dress. In fact, the most interesting part about analyzing French fashion culture is to realize that there's this American fashion culture that I've been immersed in all my life but never quite noticed until I moved abroad, first to Hungary and now here.

It reminds me of Norah Vincent's transformation into a man, and how she became aware of the distinctly feminine things she did that she didn't realize until she got made fun of them when she was trying to fit into masculine culture.

. . . which brings me to one of the things that I've thought is so interesting: men and scarves. Or more generally, men's fashion. While there are differences in the way women dress here, where you really notice a difference in French and American fashion culture is in the men. This is the topic of a whole other blogpost that I've been writing in my head since I got here, but the men here have a lot more freedom to express themselves in the way they dress without it reflecting negatively on their masculinity. Like I said, another blogpost, but in one sentence: one of the most important things I've realized while living in France is how toxic America's culture of masculinity is. It's something I've discussed with the French families here, and, anyway -- another time I'll write more extensively about what I've observed.

Well seeing as I've used 20 of my 30 minutes, I'll just make a few quick observations about French style:

- In general French women spend a lot more time thinking about their appearance and the proportions, fit, and look of their outfits than American women do, but when they walk out the door they stop worrying about it. At least outwardly. I've never seen a French woman check herself out in a window as she walked past. I think this has a lot to do with the confidence that is so intoxicating about French style, which is in fact . . .

- Point no. 2: confidence. French women wear some weird stuff. Surprisingly, a lot of tennis shoes with really fashionable-looking outfits. When I stepped off the plane, the first thing I noticed was a girl wearing a miniskirt, sheer black tights, and tennis shoes. Sounds ridiculous, and that's certainly how I would feel in an outfit like that, but she rocked it. It's really all about confidence and . . .

- Proportions. You can wear anything as long as it's balanced nicely. This is true of hemline placement (hem goes up, shoe goes down, and rules like that), but also of sizing. French women wear big, flowy blouses with tiny skirts, or tiny t-shirts with loose, boyfriend-style pants and heels. They also mix up high and low -- they'll wear those boyfriend jeans with stilettos, or an expensive pair of shoes with an H&M dress. It's all about being unique and unexpected.

- French women also mix up their fabrics a lot more than American women. In the States I'm used to seeing a lot of cotton, with maybe some fur or snakeskin shoes or bags, but mostly just cotton. Here you see so many different fabrics. It's part of what keeps an outfit interesting. This is so true, in fact, that I dare you to find one 'fashionable' French girl whose outfit is all one type of fabric -- it's always a mix of sheer and opaque, rough and smooth, thick and thin, chunky and light.

- Finally, a word about dressing sexy. If French women have an advantage over American women in their fashion culture, it is definitely in looking subtly sexy. If a French woman wears a short skirt, she keeps her blouse more conservative. If she wears a plunging neckline or see-through top, she keeps her skirt or pants very simple. One absolutely common combination? Mini-skirt, sheer tights, ankle boots, flowy top.

I think if you were to sum up all these ideas into one concluding obervation, it would be about attitude. American fashion culture is, I've realized, all-or-nothing -- we go to work and school and soccer practice in our 'normal' clothes, and then change into 'sexy' clothes when we go out at night. Because what kind of woman wears her club outfit to the office?

Well, a French woman. Though you definitely see some club-only outfits here, for the most part a French woman's attitude about looking nice -- or feeling sexy, or whatever else fashion does for her -- is much more fluid. Wear a miniskirt to the office if you want, but put some tights with it and a flowy shirt. Wear your favorite comfy sweater on a date, but let it fall off your shoulder a bit, or wear some fun lipstick or big sunglasses or a pretty scarf, or leather leggings. The French attitude seems to be, keep everything in balance, but keep it always. Never let go of your sexiness or your comfort, just find a way to mix the two in interesting ways.

Gotta go!

madártej recipe

Literally translated as 'bird's milk,' madártej is one of the hidden gems of Hungarian cuisine. Of the cookbooks that feature Hungarian dishes (of which there are far too few), I have yet to see one that has a recipe for madártej. By origin it is a French dish, however, so you can often find it under names such as "floating island." It's a meringue floating in crème anglaise.

This recipe is from the mother of one of my Hungarian friends, who is a fabulous cook. I've added some notes of my own as well. Crème anglaise can be difficult to make, but I promise the results are well worth it!

- 1 liter milk, plus 3–4 Tablespoons
- 4 eggs, yolks and whites separated
- 1/2 pack vanilla pudding powder
- 5–6 Tablespoons sugar
- 2 teaspoons vanilla flavor

1. Heat the liter of milk to about 175F (80C). You don't necessarily need a thermometer for this; you'll know when it's done by running a spoon through it, then run your finger along the back. If the streak remains (so the cream isn't runny), then you know it's ready!
2. While the milk is heating, beat up the egg whites into a foam. When it forms a solid peak, spoon onto the top of the boiling milk (4–5 pieces)
3. Cover the bowl and steam both of the sides of the egg whites.
4. Take out the egg whites and put them into a separate bowl. Remove the pan from the heat and set aside.
5. Mix the egg yolk and half the sugar together.
6. In a separate bowl, mix together the pudding powder and the other half of the sugar.
7. Using an egg beater or whisk, mix the yolk mixture into the pudding mixture. Blend thoroughly and carefully.
8. Add 3–4 tablespoons of cold milk to the pudding/yolk mixture and mix until smooth.
9. Add the pudding/yolk mixture to the pan of milk and reheat it.
10. Remove milk mixture from heat, add the egg whites back onto the top and refrigerate. Serve cold.

The Hungarian madártej favors soft meringue, but if you prefer the more traditional, harder meringue you can bake the egg whites instead of cooking them in milk. This recipe looks quite good, though I have yet to try it. I love the perfectly crunchy and sweet meringue, but I don't know how I feel about it in my madártej—I'm afraid it might be too sweet for me. At least I think it would put more emphasis on the meringue than the crème, which is what the Hungarian madártej is all about. Think of it like a soup with dumplings, whereas other 'floating island' recipes I've seen seem to be more like a meringue with sauce.

still falling for her

by Sharon Olds

The phlox in the jar is softening,
from the sphere of it a blossom flutters,
and the whole sagging thing makes me think
of my mother's flesh, when she was elderly, and it was
wilting, keeping its prettiness
in its old-fangled gentleness.
It's as if I'm falling in love, again,
with my mother, through the gallowsglass of my
own oncoming elderliness, as if,
now that she has been gone from the earth
as many years as a witch's familiar
has lives, I can catch glimpses of my mother, at
moments when she was alone with herself, and would
pick up her pen, and her Latinate
vocabulary, and describe what it
was like, on their last cruise, when she rose,
by invitation, from the captain's table,
and stood beside the black, grand
Steinway, in the open ocean,
and sang. I do not need a picture to
remind me of the look on my mom's
face, when she sang—extreme yearning,
a yearning out at the edge of what was
socially acceptable
on a ship like that, and you could also see
how happy her face was, to be looked at,
and you could see her listening to her own voice,
to hear if it started to go flat, or anything
she needed to do to get the music
to its hearers intact as itself, I am falling,
and I do not feel that there are rocks, below,
I think I may go on falling for my mother after
my death—or not falling but orbiting,
with her, and maybe we'll take turns
who is the moon, and who is the earth.

The Spider’s Thread

by Akutagawa Ryunosuke
translated from the Japanese by Edwan McClellan

ONE DAY THE LORD BUDDHA was taking a walk by the edge of the lotus pond in Paradise. The lotus flowers blossoming in the pond were white as pearls, and an indescribably delicate fragrance, rising from their golden stamens, filled the air, never ending. The hour in Paradise was perhaps early morn.

Then the lord Buddha paused, and through a clear patch of water between those lotus flowers that covered the surface of the pond, he looked at the scene below. At the bottom of the lotus pond in Paradise was Hell, and through the crystalclear water could be seen, as though in a peep-show, such sights as the River of Death and the Mountain of Needles. And almost immediately the lord Buddha noticed a man named Kandata, writhing in the midst of other sinners. This man Kandata had been a great thief, and had done many wicked deeds on earth, killing men and burning houses. Yet even he had once acted with kindness. One day, when walking through a thick forest, he saw a little spider crawling across his path. IIe lifted his foot, and was about to crush it to death, when he suddenly changed his mind. “Eo,” he said tn himself, “I must ‘not. Even a little creature such as this has life, and to kill it without cause would be a great pity.” And so he spared the life of the spider.

The lord Buddha, as he looked at the scene in Hell, remembered Kandata’s kindness to the spider; and he thought that he should save Kandata if he could, in return for his one good deed. Fortunately, beside him, on a lotus leaf the color of dark jade, a spider of Paradise was weaving a silvery web. The lord Buddha picked up the spider gently, and then began to let it down between the pearl-white flowers, straight towards Hell far beneath.

Meanwhile, Kandata, with other sinners, was struggling to keep afloat in the Lake of Blood, which was in the lowest depths of Hell. All was darkness, except for an occasional, ghostly glimmer of half-light coming from the fearful Mountain of Needles. The quiet was like that of a graveyard, and the only sound that could be heard was the faint sighing of the sinners. Perhaps those that had come SO far down in Hell had gone through too many torments to have any strength left for loud cries of self-pity. And in the Lake of Blood, even the great thief Kandata could only writhe and choke like a dying frog.

But it so happened that Kandata, in the midst of his suffering, raised his head and looked towards the sky above the lake. And he saw, descending gradually towards him in a straight, shimmering line, as though fearful of being seen by man’s eyes, the silvery thread of the spider. It seemed to come from far, far above, through the silent darkness. Kandata clapped his hands for joy. Surely, he thought, if he could once get hold of the thread, and climb far enough, he would eventually get out of Hell. With luck, he might even reach Paradise. And then, he would no more be chased up the Mountain of Needles, or be pushed down into the Lake of Blood.

With this hope in his heart, he reached for the thread, and grasping it firmly with both hands, he began to climb up, up, and up, with all his might. Having once been a burglar, he was a skilful climber. But the ascent was by no means an easy one, for thousands of miles separated Paradise from Hell. After a time, Kandata grew very tired, and could climb no more. Reluctantly, he paused to rest, and still clinging firmly to the thread, he looked down into the depths below.

He must have come a long way up indeed, for already, the Lake of Blood was no longer visible, and even the top of the dully gleaming Mountain of Needles was beneath him. At this rate, he thought, getting out of Hell might not be so difficult after all. In a tone of voice he had not used for many a year, he cried, “Good, good!” and began to laugh. Then suddenly he espied far below a procession of sinners, numberless as a column of anis, coming after him up the spider’s thread. For a while, Kandata, struck dumb with amazement and fear, could only stare openmouthed at the scene. How could such a thin spider’s thread, which seemed too fragile to bear the weight of one man, bear the added burden of so many others! And if the thread did break, he would drop straight back into Hell. And as such frightening thoughts passed through his mind, hundreds, nay thousands, more sinners were crawling out of the darkness of the Lake of Blood, and were climbing up the thread. Unless Kandata stopped them, the thread would surely break in the middle, and they would all fall.

And so Kandata with a loud voice began to scream at his fellow-sinners. “Listen to me, you sinners! This spider’s thread is mine! Who said you could come up after me? Get off! Get off!” It was at this moment that the spider’s thread, which until then had shown no signs of breaking, snapped just above Kandata’s clinging hands. Spinning round and round through the air like a top, Kandata’s body plunged into the darkness.

All that now remained in the moonless and starless sky was the thin thread of the spider of Paradise, shimmering softly in the dark.

The lord Buddha, standing by the lotus pond of Paradise, saw all that passed below. And when at last the body of Kandata had sunk like a stone to the bottom of the Lake of Blood, he resumed his walk, sadly. There was probably much pity in the lord Buddha’s heart for Kandata, who was sent back to Hell for his heartlessness. But the pearl-white flowers in the lotus pond of Paradise, innocent of wickedness or sorrow, swayed gently about the feet of the lord Buddha, and from the golden stamens, there came the same delicate fragrance, filling the air as always. The hour in Paradise was perhaps near noon.

The Bluebell

by Anne Bronte

A fine and subtle spirit dwells
In every little flower,
Each one its own sweet feeling breathes
With more or less of power.
There is a silent eloquence
In every wild bluebell
That fills my softened heart with bliss
That words could never tell.

Yet I recall not long ago
A bright and sunny day,
'Twas when I led a toilsome life
So many leagues away;

That day along a sunny road
All carelessly I strayed,
Between two banks where smiling flowers
Their varied hues displayed.

Before me rose a lofty hill,
Behind me lay the sea,
My heart was not so heavy then
As it was wont to be.

Less harassed than at other times
I saw the scene was fair,
And spoke and laughed to those around,
As if I knew no care.

But when I looked upon the bank
My wandering glances fell
Upon a little trembling flower,
A single sweet bluebell.

Whence came that rising in my throat,
That dimness in my eye?
Why did those burning drops distil —
Those bitter feelings rise?

O, that lone flower recalled to me
My happy childhood's hours
When bluebells seemed like fairy gifts
A prize among the flowers,

Those sunny days of merriment
When heart and soul were free,
And when I dwelt with kindred hearts
That loved and cared for me.

I had not then mid heartless crowds
To spend a thankless life
In seeking after others' weal
With anxious toil and strife.

'Sad wanderer, weep those blissful times
That never may return!'
The lovely floweret seemed to say,
And thus it made me mourn.

some poems

shoulda, woulda, coulda by a.e. stallings

the well of grief by david whtye

our conversation by franz wright

yesterday by w.s. merwin

special treatments ward by dana gioia

courage by anne sexton

They're all poems I come back to again and again.

Special Treatments Ward
perhaps the most.