28

28.

An age I never really imagined I’d see when I pictured myself as some fuzzy version of a “grown up”. When I was a child and in a hurry to grow up I definitely imagined myself at 16 – getting a driver’s license and having the time of my life in high school. I also imagined myself at 18 – going to the prom, starting college, making my own decisions. I don’t really recall any thoughts about life past that point. I’m sure that, at age 10, few kids are thinking about their future selves at 30. Of course, there were the traditional girlish fantasies about marriage and children that I acted out with dolls and my little girl friends, but the possibility of it seemed so remote that it was difficult to realistically picture it actually happening. And now that January 14th has come and gone, I feel that I have so many milestones behind me that I am rather unexcited about moving forward.

I still don’t feel like an adult because I have so many goals yet to achieve thanks to mistakes and detours I have made along the way.  I am still in school, working on a 3rd degree so that I can become licensed as a nurse practitioner in 2014. I can’t remember a time when school wasn’t a part of my life. Many of my coworkers, who took what I would consider a more traditional approach to life, are in long term relationships, have gotten married, and/or now have children. I don’t think I appreciated how much losing a parent in adolescence could stunt one’s progress in moving towards “the future”. Despite finishing a nursing program and starting work in a career that I am excited about, I have still felt a bit stuck and rooted to one spot by my desire to return to life before the absolute-worst-day-of-my-life  in 2009.

Grief, though it wanes over time, is fairly omnipresent. I mean, does one ever not grieve the loss of someone they love? Since my birthday, at least 5 people have told me that 28 is a good year. I don’t know where this consensus comes from or if there is even any truth to it. Several individuals have told me that 28 was their “best” year, that really good things happened to them. I hope to high heaven that they are right. I could use a dramatic twist or turn along this road I feel that I am traveling along at a plodding pace. I can feel all of that potential energy that has built up behind me over the last 4 years about to launch me into some great kinetic state where change happens and achievements are made.

Luckily, I started my new year off right with a hearty brunch at Terrain at Styer’s with some of those nearest and dearest to me. Nothing reminds you of what is most important in life than the important people with whom you surround yourself.

These ladies know me better than most.

These ladies know me better than most.

 

We survived nursing school together.

We survived nursing school together.

 

Winter Traditions

Time has certainly gotten away from me this winter season. Isn’t that always the case, though, when Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s go flying by in quick succession? I think bears have the right idea with hibernation. Ideally, I like to slow down in winter – try to go to bed earlier as the sunlight is so fleeting, relax more with reading or crafts, and cook hearty dishes whose leftovers taste better as the days wear on.

I don’t think I have a favorite season. I seem to appreciate each natural cycle of the year for its unique personality – spring brings a sense of hope and awakening and rejuvenation as the days lengthen and stretch their legs, summer is full of energy and doing and our attempt to wring every last bit of joy out of each day, autumn is a riot of color as the leaves change and the heat and humidity give way to “sweater weather”, and winter is full of tradition, change, and expectation as we enter the new year.

I love our winter family traditions here in Philadelphia. They have changed over the years (my father no longer types out a Christmas morning letter from Santa, but the dining room centerpiece from the local florist arrives years after year) and feel a bit different than they did when I was a child, but the ritual layers beneath are mostly the same. I still think that there is something quite magical about the whole season despite the dark and cold that surrounds us.

Preparation – 5 or so years ago, our next-door-neighbors started a tradition called “Advent Soup Night”. In the Catholic tradition, Advent is the season of preparation before Christmas when Christians look forward to the joy that Jesus’ birth brings. It is a time of reflection and quiet as individuals think about all that has transpired in the past year and look ahead to the excitement and fresh start that is implicit with the coming of a new one. We celebrate this season by getting together with our neighbors and friends each Sunday evening for 4 weeks before Christmas. The evening notably features soup and bread. Each evening features anywhere from 2-4 soups depending on who is trying out a new recipe or if there is demand for an old favorite. Over the years, people have added small appetizers, wine, and dessert, turning our humble meal into a bit of a feast. Before eating, our host leads us in a reflection that is universal to all guests regardless of personal faith. Often the themes address darkness, light, hope, joy, sorrow, and peace. Then we sing a verse from “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” before everyone grabs a bowl and heads into the kitchen. Advent Soup has become one of the most important traditions in my holiday season and I often find myself out of sorts if I have to miss a night due to work.

The tree – As long as my mother lives and breathes, we will have a live Christmas tree. A Douglas Fir to be exact. It’s scent heralds the coming of Christmas and I never get tired of finding the same, decades-old ornaments hanging from the branches.

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Easy, peasy Christmas banner

The lights – We always have little electric candles in the window. Actually, we keep these up year round. At Christmas, my brother and I add lights to the exterior of the house, carrying on the job my father would have done. There is nothing more comforting than coming home to those warm, tiny lights. No matter how long or how bad my day, I can always find my way home.

The food – Cookies are imperative. Each year, I try out a new recipe or two in addition to the tried and true “roll out cookie”. This year I added spiced and candied nuts to the mix. I usually gift these treats along with other edibles I have preserved throughout the year. I find baking very soothing. And what is more satisfying than a warm, homemade cookie?

The gardens – My mom and I have love taking in the holiday lights display at Longwood Gardens. I look forward to dinner in their cafe, hot chocolate, and strolling the grounds as the sun settles in for the night. In the dark, the landscape is a sea of colored lights upon the trees. The conservatory has a different theme each year – this year it is “stars” – that is elaborately conveyed through the many rooms of flowers and other flora.

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Roof of the conservatory

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Paper lanterns

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Halo of stars

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Kumquat Tree

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Water features

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Fantasy table display

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Outdoor display

Soup Season

I love soup.

If for nothing else, I love fall and winter because they are soup seasons. There is something very comforting about sipping warm broth on a blustery evening. My neighbors are also big fans of soup and we gather every Sunday during Advent (the month-long season of preparation before Christmas) for a soup night where we enjoy the company of friends and family, give thanks for the many blessings we have, and look forward to the coming new year. Each Sunday brings a new group of soups and we eat bowl after bowl of long-time favorites and new variations. I look forward to this tradition every year. Maybe more so than Christmas itself.

Growing up, my mother made a lot of meals in big pots. I am especially fond of her bright orange Le Creuset dutch oven that I can only now just lift. A lot of good, family meals have come out of the piece of crockery – meaty, melt-in-your-mouth pot roasts with a menagerie of root vegetables and burgundy broth that was sometimes served with creamy mashed potatoes or over egg noodles, pork roasts with apples and tart apricot glaze drippings, and hearty stews with deep brown gravy that creeps up the flesh of crusty bread as you clean your bowl. The other big pot is a silver stock pot that was used to wilt collards and kale for traditional southern “greens”. Sometimes the remains of a chicken or ham hocks or turkey legs would find their way in for stock. We would ladle out thick, green split pea soup or maybe a variation on a corn chowder or possibly something bursting with beans of all shapes and sizes.

Soup is easily my favorite meal. You can make a soup as complicated or as simple as you like given your time frame and list of ingredients. With the marvel of modern technology, we can now add a few cans of this or that and be done in an hour’s time. If you have a crock pot, cooking time can be drastically reduced as well.
Soup is also a very easy way to hide a multitude of sins as you don’t have to worry about getting every detail just right – you can adjust your flavor and your ingredients as you go along. Not to mention that it is such an easy way to incorporate those foods that are tremendously good for you but not palatable in their raw form. I will easily eat my weight in kale if it is in soup.

A friend of mine passed along a recipe for kale, sausage, and cannelloni (or cannellini) bean soup that she and her family had given high marks. My version of this idiot-proof dish is below. I was skeptical about the addition of lemon juice but found that it added a bright flavor that contrasts well with the smokiness of the sausage and more bitter flavor of the kale. This recipe could be easily made vegetarian or vegan if you substituted vegetable or mushroom brother and left out the sausage. In the future, I may add more vegetables and beans to boost the antioxidant value of this meal.

Other tweaks I made:

  • I did not use sundried tomatoes packed in oil as I didn’t want to add extra fat/calories. I found that my local Whole Foods sells sundried tomatoes in a resealable pouch that I can just keep on hand in the fridge.
  • Crushed or diced tomatoes could be used to avoid the mess of chopping whole tomatoes.
  • I used the “juice” from both the tomatoes and the beans.
  • I added a few extra leaves of kale and used regular curly leaf as I could not find lacinto. Wash well! Kale often has little tiny pests that look like gray or white fuzz.
  • I used 4 links of italian-style turkey sausage. I cooked it first then cut it into pieces.

The recipe says that it serves 4, but unless your family includes 4 giants it will easily feed you several times over. I placed a few portions in the freezer for later this winter. As a single lady, I do not shy away from recipes that make many portions as I love being able to pull things out of my freezer that are already made!

Kale, Sausage, and Cannelloni Soup

* 1 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil

* 3 to 4 sausage links

* 2 cloves of garlic, minced

* 2 cans of cannelloni beans

* 1 can of whole tomatoes, coarsely chopped

* 40 ounces of low sodium chicken broth

* 1/3 cup sundried tomatoes, julienned, packed in oil and patted dry before using

* 1 bunch (6 to 8 leaves) of lacinto kale, stems removed and coarsely chopped

* juice of 2 lemons

* 3 Tbsp grated parmesean cheese with more for serving

* 1 tsp salt, more to taste

Heat oil in skillet over medium heat and cook sausages through. { I wanted my sausage completely cooked before being added to the soup } Add garlic and sundried tomatoes and cook for one minute. In a large pot, add chicken broth, beans, tomatoes, lemon juice, kale, 3 Tbsp cheese, sausage/garlic/sundried tomatoes from skillet, and salt. Simmer on low, uncovered for 30 minutes.

To serve: Ladle into bowls, top with more cheese and serve with crusty bread.

Five Years

At the end of May, I attended my 5th college reunion in NYC.

 

Barnard College was a place of incredible growth for me. I fell in love with Manhattan. It was where I developed into an independent individual, learned to navigate a subway system, discovered Anthropology, and came to terms with the fact that I didn’t actually want to be a doctor even though it had been a childhood dream.

I never thought of myself as the type of person to attend renunions, but Barnard throws one heck of a party and it seemed too good to pass up. Barnard has been home to so many amazing women throughout the decades that our reunions seem more like an exclusive A-list event than a staid gathering of old college friends. There are lectures and performances to attend, cocktails on the lawn, fine dining and dancing in the quad, tours of the city we once considered our beloved home, and plenty of photo opportunities.

Cocktails on Lehman Lawn.

 

Milbank Hall where I spent most of my class days.

 

Barnard has been parterning with The Moth for several years now to give alumnae a chance to showcase stories about their experiences at the college. As an avid Moth listener, I submitted a story for review and was thrilled to have it chosen to be part of the event about the Mentors, Monsters, and Muses who shaped our time in college. It was such a privilege to work with one of the producers of the Moth and to learn how to really hone and craft a good, live story. I am so grateful for the opportunity that Barnard gave me to share my story, to overcome a bit of stage fright, and to fulfill a dream I’ve had of participating in a storytelling event.

The weekend also included trips to some of my favorite places in Manhattan like Purl SoHo. I discovered Purl during my sophomore year when I was looking for a good yarn shop in the city. Starting at 116th Street, I would ride the 1 to Times Square to then hop on the N train downtown to Prince Street. It was a trek  to their tiny space next to a French bakery on Sullivan Street, but the cozy shop always made me feel at home – warm and safe and deeply happy – surrounded by all those luscious fibers and saturated colors. Since 2004, Purl has since moved to a larger home on Broome Street to combine their yarn and fabric shops into one joyful, colorful space. I make it a goal to visit every year!

 

 

Liberty of London “Tana Lawn” prints in embroidery hoops

 

 

I can never visit Manhattan without choosing something to see in the theater district. This year, I chose Porgy and Bess knowing that it had received a great many Tony nods. I also couldn’t bear to miss vocal powerhouse, Audra McDonald, as Bess. In my life, theater has always been a way for me to lose myself in song and dance and the tragedy or triumph of the human spirit. Live theater is energizing in a way that movies are not, especially when you are in the third row of the orchestra seating! I’m not much of a stargazer, but I did hang around after the show to collect the autographs of the cast members – even Audra. I may still be on Cloud 9!

Porgy and Bess at the Richard Rodgers Theater

 

The actor who played “Crown”

 

Me and my mom with Norm Lewis who played “Porgy”

There was also a trip to The Frick Collection on East 70th Street to marvel at the collection of some of the best known European artists. I am especially fond of anything from the court of King Louis’ XVI. Frick also had several of the best works by El Greco – an artist very much overlooked until the 20th century. I got lost in the Roccoco beauty of the Fragonard Room and Boucher murals – all works acquired for Mrs. Frick’s private rooms.

If you are on the East side and you have just been marveling at French masterpieces at The Frick, you must, of course, stop at La Maison Laduree for the finest French macraons. These delicate cookies are a delicious combination of light and flaky meringue with decadently flavorful cream in the middle. The salted caramel and rose are my favorites. At $35 per dozen, though, Laduree macarons are a true luxury.

Macaron trees!

 

Pretty pastels

 

Then, without warning, the weekend is over and it is back to Philadelphia on the train until next year, knowing that time slips by all too quickly and soon I will be back at Barnard for my 10th renunion.

Reverb 10 for December 19 – HEALING

December 19 – Healing. What healed you this year? Was it sudden, or a drip-by-drip evolution? How would you like to be healed in 2011?

People, in general. This person, in particular.

Dessert crepes at Beu Monde in Philadelphia with "Flat Jesse"

*I know you’re intrigued by the little cardboard man in the photo, but you’ll have to ignore him as he is not the subject of this post. As it is, I am probably risking life and limb posting this picture here, but it’s a risk I shall take nonetheless.

2010 has been that fragile year just after the death of my father where people walk on eggshells and constantly ask you how you are doing. It’s like the rest of the world is on a surveillance mission to see if you’re going to go completely off the deep end during the grieving process. It also seemed that, in 2010, we were continually remembering my father but never really putting him to rest because of a series of events to honor him had been scheduled throughout the year, not to mention a grand portrait unveiling in November. Because I was perpetually busy during this time with classes and clinical rotations and a two-week vacation to Maine, I didn’t really consider myself in need of any healing. Afterall, I had plenty of support from mental health professionals as well to keep a tight reign on anything that might resemble a downward spiral towards depression. It’s only in retrospect that I realize that my friendship with J provided healing because she continually reminded me why life is worth living, why it can be exciting and beautiful, how the smallest acts can renew your spirit, how faith can remind you that you aren’t alone on the planet, and that taking time to be with other people is one of the most important things you can do for yourself and others.

J is a phenomenal person. In fact, she greatly reminds me of my father in that she is a carrier of that ever annoying trait that makes her seemingly immune to passing judgment on other human beings. I, on the other hand, seem incapable of forming snide opinions of people within seconds of meeting them. These opinions, no doubt, tend to drastically change over time as I get to know others.  I am usually able to keep them in the confines of my own head, but sometimes they slip out and it’s like I hear my father’s voice come out of J’s mouth and I just want to ask “how can you like everybody!?”.

J is also one of those dependable people that are increasingly difficult to find in the world and that seemed to make all the difference in 2010. I wrote an earlier post about how much I appreciate my mother because of her dependability but, she is my mother afterall and part of that comes with the territory of bringing a wee one into the world. J, is beholden to me in no way whatsoever, yet I have been able to count on her for an inordinate amount of emotional support this year. And she has been supportive in exactly the way that I need: the strong, silent way. No loaded questions of “well, just how are you these days?” or “everything alright at home?” I didn’t have to lie about my emotional state and I didn’t get any of the overly-saccharine sympathy that I had come to detest. Every comment and question and suggest was always honest and genuine.

J and I took a lot of walks in 2010 as I, yet again, tried to recommit myself to some sort of fitness routine. It’s pretty difficult to get myself to commit to walking in the freezing cold at 9am let alone to convince someone else to do it with me. At one point, we were up to 5 miles round-trip which seemed to amaze others with whom I would share this information. Our walks provided a kind of self-renewal that I hadn’t even realized that I craved or needed. Even if I balked on some mornings, J would inevitably persuade me to lace up my sneakers and off we’d go. I always felt better at the end of the trail. It was great to accomplish something. 5 miles every week was a veritable Mount Everest for me in terms of conquering my inability to commit to any fitness routine. Beyond, the steps we logged, we engaged in lengthy chats about anything and everything of a personal, ridiculous, serious, or sad nature. It was free psychotherapy. I learned to become a better listener on these walks. I tried to learn to not get so worked up about stupid, small stuff. J tends to make me want to be a better person, so mostly, I did a lot of trying on these walks: try to not interrupt, try to not judge, try to listen for what isn’t being said.

Unfortunately, our walking schedule took a major nosedive with the fall as we geared up to finish nursing school and I struggled with two unhappy kidneys. Now, J is headed off to the wilds (or at least suburbs) of North Dakota to begin her nursing career while I remain in Philadelphia to start mine. In 2011, I will still take walks, though. If I’ve learned anything at all from my father’s death, it’s that you can still talk to someone even when they’re not next to you to hear you. I’ll just be sure to keep it in my head.

Reverb 10 for December 16 – FRIENDSHIP

December 16 – Friendship. How has a friend changed you or your perspective on the world this year? Was this change gradual, or a sudden burst?

I think I’m going to take some liberties with this prompt. My circle of friends has undergone some radical reconstruction in the past couple of years and my perspective on the world hasn’t been changed by just one person but by several persons.

If you ask my mom, she may or may not tell you about the year I was in 6th grade where she literally went all “mad black woman” on my female classmates at some middle school event. In retrospect, the whole scene was pretty hilarious and I can’t even really remember what sparked the outburst. My gut tells me that it had something to do with where the other girls were or were not sitting in relation to myself. I’m sure everyone can remember those lunchroom quibbles that ultimately devolved into tears as someone was told “oh, that seat is saved”. The whole event ended with a meeting with the principal and our teachers in the school chapel where we probably discussed tolerance, the “golden rule”, and other related Christian values. I was pretty mortified at the time, but it felt good to have my mom stand up for me. She’s good at taking one for the team.

Then there was the drama of high school where my entire group of friends was split down the middle as if we were reliving the great schism of the Catholic church when one girl accused me of lusting after her crush. It was at the time, and still is, debateable as to whether or not this boy was even heterosexual. I was friends with this boy by way of another mutual friend but had no romantic designs on him whatsoever. And despite a strongly-worded email to her, from him, on my behalf, she never spoke to me after sophomore year. The teenage female heart is hardly rational. And again, the drama led me to yet another meeting; this time with said classmate and the guidance counselor where the issue was never resolved. To further add insult to injury, this classmate’s mother was my English teacher and adviser to the only extracurricular activity that I really loved. Good grief!

I didn’t fair much better in college. My freshman year roommate and I seemed to never get along and, again, the sentiments between the two of us divided our entire floor. I never felt that warm-fuzzy feeling portrayed by the cast of 90210 or Saved by the Bell that one gets when surrounded by their best, true-blue buddies. There were always one or two confidantes, but they never seemed to truly stick if the going got rough or life changed in any significant way. The one friend I managed to make it out of Barnard with, stopped speaking to me shortly after my dad died without warning and for no discernible reason. It just keeps getting better, doesn’t it?

When I returned to Philadelphia post-Barnard, I was so distraught that my mom suggested I adopt a kitten to keep me company. My father then adopted a second kitten for me thinking that not only did I need another buddy, but so did kitty #1. By 23, I was a fully-fledged cat lady.

The story becomes remarkably brighter, though. By participating in various activities, taking classes, and enrolling in nursing school, I started adding non-furry friends to my life. And these people, these people are keepers. They’ve changed my perspective on the world because I’ve come to know what genuine, unconditional friendship feels like. They remember my birthday, they don’t stop talking to me if we quarrel, they appreciate handknit gifts, they’ve introduced me to new foods, places, and experiences. I’ve also been forced to look at the world through different lenses to consider different perspectives on politics, love, religion, social justice, etc. I know that I am supported and accepted and challenged. The changes have been gradual and I’m still learning what it means to be a good, supportive friend, but I’m pleased that I can stop looking for friendship at the PetSmart adoption center.

Reverb 10 for December 15 – 5 MINUTES

December 15 – 5 minutes. Imagine you will completely lose your memory of 2010 in five minutes. Set an alarm for five minutes and capture the things you most want to remember about 2010.

I’m using a 5 minute Celine Dion Christmas ballad as my timer. Does anyone else feel like her songs tend to be abnormally long?

In no particular order of importance, things I want to remember of the year 2010 before my memory gets erased by one of those Men In Black amnesia gun thingies…

 

Fiona likes to pose for her photoshoots.

 

The re-dedication of the Dr. Bernett L. Johnson Jr Sayre Health Center. The last day of my Penn BSN program. Getting offered a nursing job on the exact unit where I want to be. Walks in Fairmount park with J. Every Advent Soup Night. Dancing like a fool with my fellow nursing students. Viewing dad’s portrait at HUP. All the sentiments I’ve heard from those at HUP and Penn who remind me that he’s not forgotten. Naps with my cats. The beauty of Maine in August. Finding a new friend in A. Talking with patients at United Community Clinics. The privilege of getting to hold so many precious children at CHOP. Movies on Black Friday with mom. Baking bread. Picking fresh fruit. Making jam. Visiting the new PurlSoho space. Introducing J to NYC. Hugs from Phyllis and HUP’s COO, Mr. Black. The funny way it looks like our dog Hudson is smiling or laughing. Birds at the bird feeder. Nursing potlucks in all their epic glory. Hugs from B that make it hard to breathe.

Of course, there would be so much more, but my holiday iTunes playlist is on to Sarah McLachlan.

 

December at Valley Green Inn, Fairmount Park, Philadelphia

Wreath and Candles for Advent Soup Night.

Bali, Queen of the Covers

The Bubbles in Arcadia National Park, Bar Harbor, Maine

Dad immortalized in oil paint at HUP

Reverb 10 for December 9 – PARTY

December 9 – Party. What social gathering rocked your socks off in 2010? Describe the people, music, food, drink, clothes, shenanigans.

Pick just one? Hmmm, that’s a challenge.

Somewhere along the line in 2009, I decided that I wanted to host a potluck for all of the friends I had made in my accelerated, second-degree nursing program. I love entertaining because it combines several of my favorite things: cooking, good food, and wonderful company. I can always block out the stress of actually having to plan for gatherings because I know everyone is bound to have a good time. Our group, it goes without saying, has instant chemistry despite our diversity. I am a native Philadelphian, but most of my nursing friends are from all over the country and as far away as Alaska. We are a mix of ages and backgrounds, having all gone to college for something other than nursing in the past. Before I knew it, I had a popular event on my hand with requests for repeats.

Since then, I have hosted two more potluck dinners and they are always the highlight of any season for me. I am continually impressed by the dishes that my friends prepare – they put such thought and effort into their selections! We have had risottos, homemade sushi, vegan cupcakes, hearty salads, traditional family recipes, and creative concoctions thought up in the spur of the moment.Sometimes we talk about nursing and laugh about funny situations we’ve found ourselves in at the hospital but, more often, we learn about who each person is outside of school. People bring their significant others and the circle opens a bit to include a few more. We play games like Apples to Apples or Catch Phrase that usually end up causing silly arguments that dissolve into giggles. At the end of the night, everyone goes home warm and full and happy, sustained for another few months before we do it all again.

Next time? I’m thinking brunch! Who doesn’t love a mimosa?