Hello from Nashville!

Eric and I are in Nashville visiting family and having a blast. Even though it’s only three hours from Memphis, Nashville is a place I have only been to a handful of times on short trips. We are having so much fun exploring and getting to know the city. It’s a wonderful note to end the year on, and I have lots of fun looking back/looking forward posts planned for the coming week. Here’s to all the joy that 2012 brought us; here’s to all the joy that 2013 has in store!

My One Little Word for 2013: Open

Last year my one little word came gently into my life, nudging me in the weeks and months leading up to the new year. This year I had an image before I had a word, and it took a little while for that image to take on verbal form. The image, and the idea, really, was open arms. I want to welcome all that comes my way this year.

Part of it is accepting the good along with the bad, and I find myself so at peace when I am able to do that. But it’s also about new opportunities and circumstances that may present themselves to me, doors and windows I hope to find open and waiting for me. And it’s also about wanting to have my eyes open, not missing any of the beauty around me. I want to be present for all of it. I want to be welcoming to all of it. And so I set out on this journey. I am sure that this word will mean things to me at the end of 2013 that I can’t really imagine right now. I am so excited to find all of them out and to savor them.

One Little Word Recap: 2012

My one little word for this year was grateful, and it was a good year for it. This year brought so many unexpected surprises, like a trip to Aspen in January and the chance to spend a week with Eric in Istanbul. It brought the birth of my Besfrinn’s sweet baby girl, and so many happy phone conversations and Skype dates. It brought the chance to see both of our families, ample hours for reading and blogging and wading into new creative territory. It brought my Big Project and the dream of the life I hope to build around it.

And it also brought some truly difficult things. Some parts of this year were, honestly, really hard. There’s no drama behind that statement–it’s nothing more major than the adjustment to a new career, a new city, a new climate, and a handful of assorted health issues that, thankfully, are more annoying than frightening. Still, there have been days when I have clung hard to this one little word, and it has served me well.

Because no matter what it is I may face, I have so much to hold onto, so much to bolster me. I have said this before and I will say it again: I don’t know what on earth I would do without Eric. He is my rock, my kind and patient and compassionate best friend, and knowing that he has my back, always, brings a peace to me that I can’t even put into words. On top of that, I have two families who love me unconditionally, listen when I need an ear, and encourage unfailingly anything I set out to do. I am so, so grateful.

Eric and I have our health, a roof over our heads, food to eat, and friends with whom to share it. And all of those things, they really do lighten your spirit on a difficult day. The problems that we all face as individuals are real, but while they may shake up the balance in our lives, they do not change its basic structure, its overwhelming goodness–that goodness that is all around us, even when we face things that are difficult beyond imagining. When I am feeling discouraged, I think first of Eric and then of all the other people who love me, who support me, who share their lives with me as I share mine with them. I go down a line in my head of all I have to be grateful for…and I never have to go very far down that line before I’m smiling or crying tears of gratitude. That is the kind of life I want to live.

That gratitude is so palpable to me at this moment, as I’m typing this next to Eric, after dinner and a movie with my parents, in the home that saw me through my teenage years. I’d very much like to think, and indeed I hope, that gratitude follows me everywhere I go. At the beginning of this year, I traced the word grateful in the snow in Aspen. Today, miracle of miracles, it snowed in Memphis, a perfect bookend to this year of gratitude. I hope with all my heart that your year has been just as full of joy as mine.

Merry Christmas!

You know, I had actually planned a bunch of posts for this week, and maybe I will get to a few of them, but for right now, I am so enjoying being home with family. There’s been a lot of reading by the fire, laughing over long meals, and running crazy last-minute Christmas errands. You know someone is special to you when even that last one is fun, as long as you do it together. I have been really unplugged since we got here, but I have been really plugged in in another way. There is something so powerful about being in a space of unconditional love. I am drinking in every second of it. And thus I am behind on blog comments (thank you so much for them!) and posts, but it’s just the right kind of behind to be. I hope you all find yourselves in such a space this year. Merry merry Christmas to you and yours!

Our Little Christmas

Eric and I decided to have our little Christmas before we went home, mostly so we wouldn’t have to schlep all our presents with us! The day started with holiday breakfast at the Athenaeum, which is always gloriously decorated for Christmas. We had to get up kind of early, but it was totally worth it…once I got some coffee. I kind of chased down the waiter who had the coffee (yes, I will stop at nothing to get my precious nectar), but luckily he found this more charming than disturbing.

Right as you walk through the front doors, you see…

this majestic Christmas tree!

Here I am in front of it, just so you know I was there. Breakfast was delicious, as things generally are at the Athenaeum. I wish we could have gone every day this week!

And, to top off the awesome, they had a gingerbread Mars Rover Curiosity!

In the evening, Eric and I exchanged gifts while we blared Christmas music. I set up the timer on my camera and propped it up on top of one of our Mason jars to get this happy, grainy shot.

I made this little card for Eric. I love buttons!

Eric laughed so hard at this little gift card I made him. It’s one of my favorite sounds on earth.

One of the presents Eric gave me included this treasure map! The whole day was completely awesome. Hope you have a merry little Christmas too!

The Best Books I Read in 2012

I adore end-of-year lists. I get so antsy every December waiting for this one to come out. The best books, the best movies, the best shows…I love stumbling upon things I wouldn’t have found otherwise (so please feel free to leave your favorites in the comments!). And since I’ve been keeping up with my reading, I thought I’d dedicate a little post to the best books I read in 2012. I narrowed them down from 46, so you know they’re gems. It surprises me in a way that I don’t talk more about reading here, given that I’m pretty much always reading, but maybe an academic lifetime of literary scholarship has left me wanting to just read, enjoy, and be silent for a little while. In any case, these books are too good not to share. They weren’t all published in 2012, but they represent the cream of the crop of my 2012 reading. So, in no particular order, here goes!

I loved Middlesex, so I was really excited when Jeffrey Eugenides published a new novel. The Marriage Plot, if such is possible, moved me even more. The story is woven so artfully, from a number of different points of view, and with great compassion and a slight but bracing distance from the characters. This novel is, in a word, wrenching, and it stayed with me for days after I finished it. Eugenides takes his readers deep into worlds they could never have inhabited without his careful guiding, and it’s a pleasure to get lost in them. Eric and I both read this book, and then we spent days discussing it. It’s a good one.

My BFF recommended Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle to me years ago, and I finally got around to reading it. It’s as much an exploration of the act of writing as it is a family chronicle and a Bildungsroman, and I loved every page. The precocious narrator draws readers right in, and suddenly they are living in the ruins of a castle, on the verge of destitute, and seeing it all through the eyes of a child. The adventures are many, the heartaches are searing, but the laughter is what prevails. Ot at least it did for me.

Ian Frazier writes, rather hilariously, for The New Yorker, and several summers ago he published a series of articles on his travels through Siberia. Given that Russia is close to my heart and the area of my PhD, I was riveted. I haven’t been to the Far East at all, but I almost feel as though I have been since reading Travels in Siberia. Frazier exhibits that inexplicable love of Russia that took over me like a fever in my high school years and hasn’t let up yet. The book is written with great humor and curiosity and is not lacking in the foibles and adventures that will meet any person who decides to see all of Siberia. I read this book over the summer while we were on the farm, and I could. not. put it down. If you have an interest in travel or in Russia, this warm and tragicomic book is a must. And it’s nice and big, like Siberia, so it should keep you occupied for at least a week or so.

One of the greatest discoveries of this year was WhatShouldIReadNext.com. It’s exactly what it sounds like. It has led me to some great books, and The Privileges is one of them. I’m not even done with it yet, and it definitely already has its place here. The prose absolutely sings on every page. I got up three times while reading the first chapter to tell Eric how good it was. What is so ensnaring about it, I think, is the narrator’s deep knowledge and understanding of his characters, while he maintains an alluring distance from them. Mystery and explication, hand in hand. I will be bummed when I finish this one. And then I will immediately read everything else Jonathan Dee has written.

A Man of Parts was definitely one of the most interesting books I read this year. David Lodge is one of my favorite writers, and I adore his academic satires. So I was leery at first of following him into literary-historical-fiction territory. But this novel about H.G. Wells is so completely fascinating. The ups and downs and twists and turns of Wells’ philosophy are just as intriguing as his ever-dramatic love affairs and his always prickly friendship with Henry James. I did not know much about him at all before I read this book, but now I would love to know more, and that’s always the sign of a good read.

No book list would be complete without Murakami’s new novel, 1Q84. I downloaded it to my Kindle before we went to Istanbul, and I have been slowly devouring it ever since. I know that the reviews were mixed on this one, but sometimes I think critics just feel the need to be contrary. And I can’t take very seriously complaints about prose and style when a work is being read in translation (grrrr, the literary scholar emerges!). It was just the slightest bit slow in the beginning, but it very quickly sucked me in. It’s mysterious and otherworldly, like Murakami usually is, and his characters demand interest and sympathy. I can’t wait to see what happens.

Eric recommended to me Austin Kleon’s luminous book on creativity: Steal Like an Artist. It’s pithy enough that you can read it in one sitting, but the wisdom there is just immense. I have a lot of respect for Kleon and the work he does, and I’m glad he published this little gem of a book. Also, his sketches are awesome. Totally inspiring, no matter what your creative pursuits may be.

My BFF gave me Luisa Weiss’ beautiful memoir/cookbook My Berlin Kitchen for my birthday, and I read it in one weekend. It’s not often that you come across such deep honesty in a writer, and I always appreciate that. It’s a love story too, with the happiest of endings, and there’s no better combination than love and good food.

Eric read this book before I did, and I listened to him laugh uproariously for days before I could get my hands on it. How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming was written by the Caltech professor who…killed Pluto. It’s a wonderful read–hilarious, informative, and touching all at once–and not a bit dry. It was especially fun for me to read, since Caltech and its many telescopes are our home too. This book is completely delightful. I hope Mike Brown writes more. You know, if he has any spare time while looking for new planets.

The Sense of an Ending , in addition to being a magnificent study of the function of memory and narrative, is a true page-turner. Eric discovered it first, and then he wanted me to read it so we could discuss it. It’s a beautiful portrait of childhood and adolescence, and the unexpected mysteries and terrors of adulthood. The answer to the riddle at the center of this novella is one I never saw coming, and it took Eric and I a whole weekend to tease it out. The prose is lovely, the characters are all too real, and the questions it leaves you with are haunting.

New Knitting Project

I have a tendency to get a little obsessive about the things I make. As soon as I finish one bead loom bracelet, it’s on to the next one. And the same is true for knitting, now that I finally finished my gargantuan blanket! My new project is a blanket too, but a much smaller one. The color palette is very jewel tone, and I love it. This little throw is destined for our grad-school-iconic Ikea Poang chair. I am trying to make sure I make things that we really need and/or will use, so I am glad to have a place for this new blanket. However, after that, I’m gonna start making blankets for all of you guys, so get your orders in! (I’m kind of serious. I really love making blankets!)

I try to pick up a new skill with each new project, and this time I’m going for using multiple colors and producing this honeycomb pattern. It was a little tricky in the beginning getting used to working with three skeins of yarn on each row, but I feel really comfortable with it now.

It’s always awesome to see a project take shape, especially when you’re working with a new technique. I was so thrilled when these little honeycombs started popping up! Hopefully this blanket won’t take months and months to complete, but if it does, they will be very pleasurable months.

365 Project, Year Three

I finally finished uploading pictures to my third year of the 365 project! For those unfamiliar with it, the basic idea is that you take a picture every day for a year and upload it to Flickr. I first heard about it through my awesome friend (and talented photographer) Melissa, and I knew I just had to try it. And now here we are, three years later. My project started in mid-November, and so it ends in mid-November every year. I have been thinking a lot about those early days, and they make me smile.

I am so glad I did this project. Having all those memories (1,095 of them!) is just invaluable. And at the end of each 365, I get to look back at the highlights. This year included trips to Berkeley, Aspen, Memphis, Idyllwild, the farm, St. Louis, Santa Barbara, and Istanbul, not to mention countless treks around the LA area. It included a lot of beading projects. And sewing projects. And painting and knitting projects. It included tons of soups and vegetables and breads and desserts and fruits. It included sunsets (and one sunrise!) and lots of palm trees, Christmas trees, and blooming flowers. It included our herb garden, our local library, and a good handful of the books and magazines I enjoyed reading this year. What this looks like to me is evidence of a live lived very fully, and I am so grateful for that.

When I started this project, I was desperate for an anonymous creative outlet while writing my dissertation. I wanted my eyes to be open to all the beauty around me, even the most mundane of it. I wanted to learn how to use my camera. And I dove in with both feet. I clicked and clicked and clicked with my camera and my keyboard. I put my whole heart into recording my life there. This project has been so good to me.

And that’s why it’s so hard for me to say goodbye to it. Even as I type this, I am wondering if I am making the right decision. But the truth is that a lot has changed in three years. I have my blog now, where I write every weekday, and I have Project Life for capturing all the little details of our everyday life. I was starting to fall behind in the second year of my 365 project, starting to have more and more days for which I didn’t have a picture, but this year has been exponentially harder. Much of this past year has been crazy busy, and this project would have been a creative saving grace, had I not had so many other outlets at the same time. Little by little, I began to feel perpetually behind, and uploading pictures to my project began to feel more and more like a chore (it has been on my monthly goal list…since I started making monthly goals!). I have no regrets about the project–I am so glad that I did it, so glad that I finished this third year. But I don’t think I’ll continue, at least not immediately. It’s bittersweet to say goodbye to something that has been part of my life for such a long time, but it makes it easier to know that that door is still open, should I ever want to walk back through it. In the meantime, a big thank you to Melissa for her inspiration and to all of you who read along on Flickr or read along here. Thank you for always making me feel that the things I share, the things that are dearest to me, are met with open eyes and ears. I love you guys.

Tom Kha Gai

I have loved tom kha gai since the first time I tasted it. It’s a rich and creamy Thai coconut soup, spiked with kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass, and galangal. Fresh chilis give it a little bit of a kick, and hearty strips of chicken make it a satisfying meal. Oh yeah, and there are mushrooms. So it’s basically my platonic ideal soup. I order it every time we go out for Thai, and I have been dreaming of making my own for a good long while, but we just finally acquired the ingredients a few weeks ago. I was amazed at how well it came out on the first try, and I am pretty sure I am going to be making it weekly around here, at least until it’s too hot to even consider consuming anything remotely warm.

As far as soups go, it doesn’t look like much. The white color of the broth makes it look a little bit flavorless. But it is exactly the opposite of that. It’s more like an explosion of flavor.

I think we all have our dream dishes–things we eat at restaurants that we think we could never replicate at home. Maybe it’s a seven-layer cake or the perfect spice rub for a rack of lamb. Some things really can’t be replicated at home (alas, my oven just will not go up to the 700 degrees I need for the perfect pizza crust). But this soup, it’s my little kitchen miracle. A feather in my cap, that’s for sure.

Tom Kha Gai
Recipe from Serious Eats

20 ounces chicken stock
2-inch piece of galangal, peeled, half cut into slices, half cut into matchsticks (see note above)
2 stalks lemongrass, ends trimmed, tough outer leaves removed, cut into 1-inch pieces
4 Kaffir lime leaves, crumpled by hand (see note above)
1 (13.5 ounce) can coconut milk
1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts, sliced thinly against the grain
1/2 pound mushrooms (straw mushrooms if possible, but otherwise cremini or button), ends removed, sliced
1 tablespoon fish sauce, plus more for serving
1 tablespoon juice from 1 lime, plus more for serving
4 hot red chilis (such as Thai bird) ends trimmed, smashed with a knife
Handful fresh cilantro leaves and tender stems

-Combine stock, galangal, lemongrass, and lime leaf in a medium saucepan. Bring to a simmer over medium heat, and then reduce heat to maintain a simmer for 10 minutes. Discard the galangal and lemongrass.
-Add the coconut milk and increase heat to medium. Add chicken, mushrooms, galangal matchsticks, and Kaffir lime leaves, and cook until the chicken is completely cooked and the mushrooms are tender, about 5 minutes.
-Add the fish sauce, lime juice, and red chiles. Remove from heat. Divide the soup between four bowls, making sure each has a red chile. Garnish with cilantro. Adjust flavor with more lime juice and fish sauce as necessary.

*Galangal and kaffir lime leaves can be found at Southeast Asian supermarkets. If unavailable, ginger can be substituted for galangal, and 4 strips of lime zest can be substituted for lime leaves.

Wedding Invitation Ornament

Ages ago I saw a glass ornament filled with curlicued slivers of a wedding invitation. I bought glass ornaments last year expressly for this purpose, but I just now made mine this year. And I love it!

I used all the elements of our invitation (and oh, how well I remember stuffing them into envelopes!). I used my paper slicer to get the cuts even.

Instead of rolling them, I just curled them slightly, and then I tied some beautiful velvet ribbon around the top (Eric’s mom sent it to me!). I am a big fan of the striped effect. I love having this on the tree–even just holding the invitation in my hand reminded me of all the magic of that day, and I know that feeling will only grow as time goes on.

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