Damn, that was a gnarly winter. Winters here generally are, but this one was especially long and cold and snowy and stormy and full of work and anxiety and obligations and upheavals. Our old car died; we got a new one. Our tenants moved out; we lost their rent income but gained access to the upstairs apartment, which is in dire need of renovation, which come to think of it is another source of anxiety. We installed a baby gate at the foot of the stairs so Dingo’s poor old hips wouldn’t slip and slide down them every morning, but then we took it away when he made it clear he wasn’t ready for his baby-gate years and would descend at a more stately pace from now on as befits his elder dignity, thank you, and he’ll continue to sleep in his room, which he prefers to the living room downstairs.
I traveled too, all winter long, most of it for business. Sometimes with Brendan, more often not, I went to Austin, Miami, Virginia, Los Angeles, New Mexico, Arizona, South Carolina, New York, Los Angeles again, Miami again. The astute reader will note that these are all points south; the astute reader might further surmise that these trips were welcome diversions from a climate standpoint, and he or she would be right, and every single one of those trips was flat-out wonderful for a lot of reasons, but they were also grueling, because they entailed getting on planes.
My hatred of flying has shaded in recent months from virulent to grimly resigned; there’s no point in spending all those hours shoved in a cardboard seat in a tin can with gritted teeth and slitted eyes, because life is too short for that state. So I’ve given up and learned to acquiesce to all the depredations and humiliations flying now routinely entails, from the security conveyer belt through the toe-tapping, claustrophobic agonies of disembarking. Now, a flight that leaves on time is a blessing. A flight that isn’t delayed, rerouted, or canceled is cause for in-flight sparkling wine and a deep breath of thanks to the gods of the air.
However, eating on planes is the one challenge I haven’t quite figured out yet. Sometimes I bring hard-boiled eggs, cut-up raw vegetables, goat cheese, and gluten-free bread with me, but by the time I’m hungry, it’s all taken on the sweaty, crumbly sheen of third-grade brown-bagged lunches. Sometimes I buy food from the terminal, but I have to read labels obsessively to avoid gluten and basic dreck, and it never seems to be what I want; I’m suspicious of those fruit-and-nut bags that cost eight bucks, which I always seem to overeat without feeling satisfied. And don’t get me started about on-board food, always overpriced and overpackaged, at best a ripoff and at worst an insult.
Anyway, I didn’t come here to rant. I’m home now finally for the entire summer, for four months, till the Moose book is published and I turn my attention and energy to its fate in the world. What a luxury this is: I have nothing to do all summer but be a hermit, hunker down, and write my novel. I feel triumphant about this. I feel as if, by dint of repeated forays out into the world to read, talk, and teach, I’ve earned the right to withdraw from the world and write fiction again, the greatest joy I know.
Brendan’s in Los Angeles right now, and he’s coming home in a few days. Meanwhile, I have the house to myself. So what did I do, yesterday and today? Anything but write. Last week, I ordered a squirrel-repelling electronic noise machine; it arrived this morning, whereupon I installed it up in the crawl space on the 3rd floor, Dingo helpfully panting below as I climbed the ladder. Because it appears to be spring at long last, I bagged the piles of brush, leaves, twigs, and detritus leftover from fall and winter, six big leaf bags full, and stored them in the garage, then I hauled out the patio furniture and set it up on the patio.
Afterwards, I researched growing vegetables in pots in this northern climate. It was all I could do not to drive straight to the gardening store, but the adult part of my brain reminded me that Brendan would probably appreciate it if I waited for him to come home, because this is the fun part of home-owning. So I drove Dingo to the eastern prom instead and walked with him in the liquid-gold late afternoon while the bay unfurled its blue, blue waves on the rocky shore and the sailboats bobbed with the suddenly-green islands behind them. Spring in Maine is always like a protracted gasp of apology that feels sexually dysfunctional but really, really hot—I’m sorry I hurt you, baby, I know that snow was deep, I know you were cold, I know it was dark, but look what I’m doing now with my rich green grass and unfurling buds and vibrantly feathery, bursting blossoms, smell this sweet air, baby, you know I love you, I’ll never do it again. I fall for it every year.
And the curb-to-compost bucket also arrived this morning. Big excitement! So I set up a Tupperware thing on the counter to put coffee grounds, eggshells, vegetable scraps, and fruit peels into while I cook, and the bucket is in the mudroom with the recycling bin, and I’m dreaming of farmer’s markets and a CSA box if we can figure out how to stay put long enough to make it worthwhile.
Right now, I’m listening to bluegrass turned as loud as I want (no tenants!) and cooking dinner just for me: a mildly schizophrenic but delicious-smelling pot of sweet short brown rice with minced fresh turmeric, garlic, rosemary, oregano, red onion, jalapeno, Bragg’s amino acids, sea salt, mushrooms, green beans, and currants. The Sriracha is standing by. The windows are open. The hot pink flowers I bought at the co-op yesterday are opening with languorous decadence in the vase right in front of me. Home again, home again, jiggety jig.
For about the past month, I’ve been in a state of waxing and waning dread: low-level, then sharp, then low-level, then sharp again. And for more than six years before that, ever since I left my marriage and started the process of separation and divorce, I’ve been in limbo, first guilty, sad, and nervous, and then, over the years, increasingly angry, resentful, and at times, murderous (show me one person mired in a divorce battle who hasn’t fantasized about a handy bus coming along and killing his or her would-be ex, and I will show you a saint, or at least a martyr, or maybe an exceptionally mature person, which I obviously am not).
My dread this past month was caused by the fact that in the end, in order to get free of my long-defunct first marriage, I was forced to go down to Brooklyn divorce court and face my ex-husband, with our lawyers, before a judge. It was, as one friend suggested, like ripping off a bandage and reopening old wounds. I had nightmares about it. I realized anew why I’d left. I remembered things I’d worked hard to forget.
On Thursday morning at 6:00, my plane took off from Portland. We landed at JFK at 7:30. For an hour and a half, I sat in a cab in snarled, ugly, potholed rush-hour traffic. It was a grey morning with hard, dirty air.
What is the opposite of nostalgia? Is there such a word?
The divorce ceremony was surreal and quick and painless. The presence of my lawyer, a smart, kind, charming Brit, was like a security blanket. My ex and I had no eye contact, didn’t acknowledge each other, a skill we’d perfected in our first year of marriage, when we’d sometimes go as long as a week in the same apartment, sleeping in the same bed, without speaking.
Divorce is never easy, of course. Dissolving a marriage can take years, emotionally. But legally, once agreement has been reached and especially when there are no kids involved, it’s over in minutes. I left the courthouse with my lawyer, exchanging stories of Maine. I felt light-headed with relief.
I got into a cab with trepidation: how long would the return trip take? But this time, it sped me to JFK: no potholes, no traffic, and the city looked brighter than it had earlier, less dreary, intriguingly dense, full of stories, and I remembered why I’d loved it once.
At the Jet Blue terminal, after I went through security, it was only 11:30. I had nearly two hours until my 1:24 flight, well over an hour before it boarded. And I was starving: I’d eaten nothing but a banana all day. Luckily, as it happens, the Jet Blue terminal at JFK has a kickass food court. I perused the row of menus then wandered indecisively to the hostess stand. “What’s my best bet for gluten-free food?” I asked the two young women who stood there.
They instantly took me in hand, a special-needs project on a quiet Thursday. One of them went off to interrogate the chef of the Thai place about the pad Thai, which they assured me was excellent. The other looked through the menus with me, discussing my options: the French bistro had salads; the tapas place had plenty of things I could eat; the steakhouse might not be the ideal place for me; but really, the Thai place was their favorite.
“Okay,” I said. “Thai it is.”
The young woman who’d gone off to interview the chef came back. She was my waitress, it turned out. “He can’t say for sure,” she said. “But he’s happy to make you something off the menu. Some sautéed vegetables?”
“Can I have rice and shrimp, and can he make it spicy?”
“Done,” she said. “Anything to drink?”
I ordered a glass of cava. “I’m toasting myself,” I told her, and then I explained why I was drinking bubbly wine before noon on a weekday.
Her expression wavered: compassion? Solidarity? Congratulations? I banished her doubt. “It’s long overdue.”
She smiled and brought me an enormous glass of pale, bubbly celebration. “I brought you the prosecco instead of the cava,” she told me, and then my lunch arrived: oyster, shiitake, and maitake mushrooms in a spicy sauce with spears of broccoli rabe, alongside a mound of rice and a heap of grilled shrimp. I ate every scrap, drank every drop, left a huge tip, and flew home.
Brendan and Dingo came to get me at the airport, which is a seven-minute drive from our house. Everything felt solid again after that weird morning in divorce court. Our little city looked so beautiful: the snow was white, the houses were elegant, even the shabbiest ones, and our house, when I walked into it, was warm and snug and safe. I went upstairs and wrapped myself up like a burrito in a duvet and slept for two hours, a deep, dreamless, stress-free sleep, the first one I had had in weeks.
Yesterday, all afternoon and into the night, a heavy, icy rain fell steadily onto the shallow snow, turning the meadows into science labs of temporal precipitation layers: hard old snow packed on the ground, then newer softer snow over that, then a crust of brand-new ice, and on top, slick wet sleet in progress. As the ice-water fell, it piled up on power lines. It was only a matter of time before they started collapsing under the weight.
After our usual long walk, except the occasional slippery doggy foray into the yard, we all stayed safely inside during the sleet storm: Brendan and me, and Dingo, and Brendan’s aunt’s two dogs, Shasta and Bandito. They’re Dingo’s pals. They often stay with us and are like family, and whenever they’re here, we all automatically fall into certain class systems, like Downton Abbey. Brendan and I are definitely on the downstairs end of things.
Bandito, a small black spider monkey (actually, he’s a Jagdterrier, a German hunting dog, but he hops like a monkey with his tail in the air and has fiercely intelligent, preternaturally aware black monkey eyes), steals Dingo’s bed, or rather, he lolls in it while staring at Dingo as if daring him to challenge his right to it. Dingo stands mournfully nearby in silent passive protest, looking up at us humans to make sure we see what’s going on. “Work it out,” we tell him. “Fight for your rights.” It must be said that Dingo has the best bed: a cozy brown donut, soft with foam, with a sheepskin for warmth. Sometimes, in empathetic soft-heartedness, when Dingo looks particularly doleful and weary, we scoop Bandito off so Dingo can reclaim his territory, but usually we leave the situation alone. Dingo never looks particularly grateful or happy to be forcibly given his bed back. There are two other dog beds for him to lie on. As far as we can tell, he and Bandito are enacting some sort of doggy drama the nuances and implications of which we aren’t privy to.
Shasta is a year-old golden retriever puppy, a leggy, pretty Miss Congeniality, a brown-eyed surfer girl, blonde locks gorgeously mussed. Since she appeared on the scene, Dingo has done everything in his power (snarling, correcting, dominating, nipping, taking her entire head in his mouth, and so forth) to ensure that she developed from a rambunctious, needy, pushy, heedless puppy into a better-behaved, more subdued and polite child. In the almost ten years since I rescued him, or since we rescued each other, Dingo has shown a keen hyper-awareness of social mores and a frank horror at rudeness. In recent years, as an elder dog, he’s turned into a crabby enforcer, a stickler for manners and protocol. If he were human, he’d wave his cane and shout menacingly, “Quit that, whippersnapper!” Instead, he forces Shasta, who is about twice his size and weight, to lie down under his paw so she’ll learn the deal. As with Bandito’s bed takeover, we don’t interfere. The dogs have their own ways, just as the overlords of Downton Abbey have theirs. It is not our place to question them.
Last night, the power finally went out at around 10:30, right after the Patriots game ended (as a former New Yorker, I can’t quite believe I just typed that). At 3 in the morning, when the entire household was deeply, solidly, mutually asleep, the lights came back on; the heat roared back to life. The three dogs streamed upstairs, panting with inquiry: what the hell!? I took them back downstairs, let them out to pee, turned off the lights, turned the heat down, then told them to go back to sleep and went upstairs and did the same.
In return, this morning, while I slept, Brendan got up to let them out and feed them their breakfasts. Evidently he wasn’t going fast enough for Dingo’s liking, because Dingo came bustling upstairs and stood by the bed wagging his tail and snorting with bossy insistence until I got up and followed him down to the kitchen and helped my fellow human servant with the twice-daily food service: three different amounts of three different highly nutritious kibbles, scoops of organic canned food for all three, fish oil and chondroitin for Dingo, an elaborate treat system for dessert.
Meanwhile, we humans forgot about our own breakfast until almost 11. It regularly gets lost in the morning hubbub. Our lives are currently ruled by dogs and weather.
However, there’s a leg of lamb thawing in the fridge. It came from the biodynamic farm down the road and was a gift from Brendan’s uncle. We were going to save it for spring, but we’ve been eating a lot of rice and fish and chicken and vegetables this winter; it feels like time for some red meat. We’re planning to roast it the usual way, slowly, with salt and garlic and rosemary, and serve it alongside roasted potatoes and a heap of garlicky sautéed greens. It will do us good to serve ourselves a decadent meaty feast while the dogs lie on the floor at a respectful distance. It’s time to shake up the social order. Revolution is in the air.
My mother and sister Susan and her husband Alan and their two sons are all in New Zealand right now, visiting my other sister Emily and her husband Campbell and their four kids for Christmas. They’ve been emailing me photographs of themselves. I send back photos of Dingo and the snowy view outside the farmhouse window. Not for the first time, I have been offering heartfelt thanks for the existence of the Internet, which prevents me from ever feeling isolated or cut off, no matter how deep in the countryside I may be.
Winter is my favorite time to be here. There is no better place to work productively, day after day, free of social obligations and distractions. Brendan and I sit writing at the kitchen table while Dingo guards the house on his window seat, ears pricked, eyes trained out the window. Outside, the world is muffled and still. Bare black branches drip in an icy rain. Fog hangs over the lake and shrouds the mountains. Snow lies in a thick blanket up to the first rung of the fences. The sky hangs low over the hemlocks on the ridge.
Every day we’re here melts into the next with a comforting repetitiveness that feels like childhood, like vacation, like being sealed off from the world in a little bubble. Our days have a reassuring sameness to their rhythms: we get up, feed Dingo his breakfast and let him out; make coffee; drink coffee and write emails and read the news; take a long walk at 11; work; eat leftovers for lunch; write and read until 6; open a bottle of wine; feed Dingo his dinner; cook; eat; watch “Jeopardy!”; build a fire and play “It Was a Dark & Stormy Night;” let Dingo out one last time; go to bed and read aloud from a book we both loved as children, currently “The Secret Garden;” go to sleep.
But two nights ago, the whole household was up and awake at three in the morning. We humans woke up first. Brendan went downstairs. Optimistically, I tried to lull myself back to sleep just because it seemed like the thing to do, but then it dawned on me that it didn’t matter if I got up now and then slept all morning. Suddenly hungry, I put on my bathrobe and went down to see what was happening.
Brendan was sitting in the armchair by the fireplace, writing. He’d built a little fire, and the room was dark and warm. Dingo wasn’t in bed anymore, either; he lay on his window seat. He looked at me, thoroughly befuddled: why was it time to start his workday when it was still dark? Where was his breakfast?
I curled up at one end of the couch and started reading yet another memoir of life in Maine, a genre I’m unapologetically addicted to. (Who knew there were so many, and who would have suspected that they’d all be so riveting?) I was instantly sucked in. The room was aglow with firelight. Brendan tapped away at his keyboard. The logs crackled. Dingo snorted gently to let us know he was still wondering where his breakfast was.
Outside, it was absolutely dark. Inside, we were three solitary wakeful beings marooned together in a pool of light and warmth in a vast, sleeping landscape.
I suddenly remembered that I was hungry. Wee-hour hunger isn’t like other hunger, there’s no meal associated with four in the morning, so there’s no particular food you automatically think of to fill it. After pondering for a while, I realized I wanted a piece of toast slathered in butter and honey: nursery food. I brought Brendan one, too. Dingo got some venison jerky.
I read the whole book in three hours, then, yawning, my eyes almost shut, I climbed the stairs, got back between the flannel sheets, pulled the down comforter over my head, and fell into a deep sleep. I awoke to soft, snowy, late-morning light coming in the dormer windows and the smell of coffee.
Chicken Thighs with Lentils and Braised Cabbage
The other night, our provisions were getting low, but there was enough to throw together some sort of supper: a package of skinless, boneless chicken thighs, a small red cabbage, some onions and fresh dill and a box of clementines, along with some odds and ends in the cupboard and pantry.
I took out the small, nearly empty tub of duck fat I’d splurged on at Thanksgiving and melted a tablespoon of it in the big skillet and browned a sliced onion while I cored and chopped the cabbage. I added the cabbage to the skillet and let it soften for ten minutes while I melted another tablespoon of duck fat in a cast iron skillet and seared then cooked the chicken thighs with salt and pepper.
That seemed like a good start, but it wasn’t going to make a meal. I rinsed the cup of du Puy lentils I found in the cupboard then cooked them in two cups of chicken broth. Then I zested three clementines and juiced what was left of them. I minced all the dill, about half a cup.
I added a cup of balsamic vinegar mixed with red wine to the cabbage and let the liquid cook off. Then I added half a cup of golden raisins, the lentils, the zest and juice, stirred it all together, and nestled the thighs in. I covered this fragrant, vaguely French-ish dish and let it cook for a while. I deglazed the chicken skillet with more red wine and stirred up all the fat and browned bits until I’d made a glossy pan gravy. I poured it over each piece of chicken in the pan, sprinkled the minced dill over everything, and then it was time for dinner.
It was delicious, and oddly coherent, sweet with raisins and fruit and savory with meat and rich with duck fat, the cabbage velvety, the lentils toothsome, the dill piquant. Like most cupboard suppers, it was better than a lot of other things I make on purpose.
I’m so tired of eating! It’s such a burden suddenly, that daily demand my body puts on me, which my soul usually greets with passionate enthusiasm. Now my soul feels bilious and bored, and my body feels like a gras goose’s foie, and we have nothing to eat in the house, anyway. But that means we have to go grocery shopping, which means thinking hard about food yet again. I just can’t face it. I wish I enjoyed fasting, I’d do it for a solid week and then subsist on lentils for another week, but it’s not in me. So we’ll haul out the cloth bags and hie us down to the supermarket to mooch around the produce section and seafood counter…
We got back to town yesterday afternoon, just in time for me to go to Pilates to try to recover a little dignity. It was quite a week, just Brendan and me in the farmhouse with Dingo. On Tuesday, we had harissa haddock with chorizo and wild rice. The night before Thanksgiving, I made a sumptuous moose loaf with green beans and roasted potatoes. On Thanksgiving itself, we humans had Maine oysters with shallots and vinegar, buckwheat-buttermilk blini with salmon roe and crème fraiche and chives and dill, more blini with a spectacular sheep’s cheese, and a fresh non-GMO free range organic lovely little chicken roasted with 5 thick slices of bacon draped over the top, stuffed with sage and lemon, with whole shallots and garlic cloves riding along, and a schmear of duckfat underneath just because. Brendan made sweet-potato gnocchi, light and soft and pillowy, drenched in brown butter and sage. We had steamed kale with golden raisins and lemon zest, roasted Brussels sprouts with lardons and a whisper of caramelized brown sugar. I made cranberry sauce with maple syrup, clementine zest, lemon zest, apple juice, and a minced apple. We had pumpkin pie with whipped cream, big strawberries lavishly dipped in melted dark chocolate, and a box of ripe little clementines we peeled and ate one by one by the fire. All week long, we drank whiskey-applejack cocktails called Autumn Bonfires, invented by Rosie in a bygone year, and bottles of beautiful wine, and cava with blood orange juice.
We tried to do other things besides eating and drinking. At 11 every morning, we dutifully took Dingo on the fast four-mile walk he looks forward to and demands. Every afternoon, I read a book, whatever book I wanted, up in a hot bath for hours while Brendan worked downstairs. One night, we even hauled out our violin and guitar and book of fiddle tunes and made some noises that weren’t altogether horrific. We read “The Secret Garden” out loud to each other. We played marathon games of “It Was a Dark and Stormy Night” by the fire, the bowl of clementines dwindling, the woodsmoke tinged with orange peel. We listened to medieval choral music and sang happily along to a particularly sprightly Spanish one whose chorus goes, as far as we can tell, “Pickly pee, pickly pee, pickly pickly pickly pee.” We also sang lustily along with Martin Carthy’s darkest ballads, substituting Dingo’s name for all his doomed ladies.
But mostly, dear reader, we ate. We didn’t waste a scrap of any of that food we made for Thanksgiving itself. It fed us in one incarnation or another for four days and nights and two more days, and then on the fifth and sixth nights, we dined with Brendan’s grandmother and aunt and her family, who have a house nearby: bison ribs at the nearby inn, pork tenderloin with mushrooms at their house, rich delicious food we gobbled up as if we were starving, which we patently were not. Our last lunch before we drove away yesterday was chicken soup with parmesan-herb-black pepper crackers I’d made, and that was the end of all that food. I felt a perverse sense of accomplishment, almost as if we’d returned safely from a mountain-climbing expedition, battling high winds and oxygen deprivation, except that, of course, we’d just eaten the mountain instead.
Being sick and tired of eating is a conundrum for people who live to eat. It’s like losing our identity, our direction. We’re rudderless, adrift. Last night we went out for the lightest meal we could envision: a huge fresh simple salad with sesame dressing, and then a bowl of white rice with raw fish and delicately cut-up vegetables. But the sodium content of the tamari was so high, we both slept like crap and felt like we’d drunk a bucket of seawater.
So for the foreseeable future, it’s gonna be nothing but simple, easy, low-stress food around here. This morning, I boiled some Yukon Gold potatoes, which I’ll slice and serve with one poached egg each. Forget lunch entirely. There we go! Late breakfast, early supper, cut out the whole tedious third meal, and voila, a sort-of fast, if you squint hard and think about it.
Tomorrow, oatmeal with wild blueberries, then clear herb-filled broth with vegetables and chicken or fish. The next day, a piece of whole-grain bread with goat cheese, then a lemony, chickeny Greek rice soup. And the next day, maybe a breakfast of a cut-up apple with peanut butter, then after dark, a small mound of wild rice with a vegetable stew with some grated parmesan and pine nuts on top. Not too much wine: a glass, then a cup of peppermint tea.
And a few five-mile runs, lots of Pilates, Dingo’s daily walks on the Eastern Prom…
Maybe some day I’ll be excited about food again, in some dim far-off future. Probably by this weekend.
The other night, my friend Bill told me I have to write another post because he’s sick of reading about mushrooms every time he clicks on this blog. While I’m flattered that anyone still bothers to come here after I’ve spent so much time away, the truth is, I’ve been feeling as if I’ve written myself out. I’ve finished a draft of “How to Cook a Moose” and am awaiting edits from my editor, and meanwhile, I’m working on a couple of personal essays that feel like the end of this autobiographical half-century-mark phase I’ve been in. I’m good and ready to dive into a new novel I’ve been mulling over, which I suspect my other editor will be happy to hear. I’m excited to leave my own life back on shore and head down into the depths of an imagined world.
One of the essay assignments I’m currently working on concerns the New Nordic Diet, which I’ve been following for a month now, except for a lovely hiatus when I went down to spend four days in Austin, Texas for the Kirkus Award party and panel. Down there, it was 90 degrees and sunny, and I ate barbecue and breakfast tacos and drank tequila with wild, happy abandon; the New Nordic diet advocates eating local food, in season, and when are breakfast tacos ever out of season? And they’re definitely local.
Back in Maine, I’ve been hewing closely to the diet again. I made a hearty moose stew with Maine buckwheat flour, red wine, duck fat, beef broth, and root vegetables; I’ve been eating plenty of late-fall greens and wild-caught salmon and oatmeal with blueberries, and no processed food whatsoever. This is the way I like to eat, anyway, so it’s certainly no hardship. And now that it’s suddenly dark at 4:30 in the afternoon, and the leaves are gone, and the air is chilly and grey, this northern way of eating feels instinctive and comforting. Of course, I haven’t lost any weight, even though I’ve been exercising a lot, but then again, I’m hardly starving myself. The diet doesn’t involve any calorie counting or restricted portions.
Yesterday, as I do fairly often these days, I ran more than five miles without stopping. I’m proud that I can do this. I’m not going to break any land-speed records, but I’m in it for increased stamina and wind. I plug along like the tortoise in the Aesop fable, like the little engine that could, watching Brendan spin off on his long, fast, cartoon roadrunner, 32-year-old legs, leaving me far behind. But then, a couple of miles later, I catch up to him when he’s done sprinting and stops to walk, and then I leave him behind in my slow-and-steady wake for the rest of my run. He’s a sprinter, a poet, a screenwriter; I am a distance runner, a novelist. To each his own style, to each his own pace.
These days, I’m recalling, as I run, what training for the New York marathon felt like more than 12 years ago. I remember how fit I was at 40, how fast I whipped myself into shape to run a sub-four hour marathon, having never run distance before. I was still young back then, and much faster, but I’m stronger now because of Pilates. I can feel my upper back and arms and core working as I charge up hills, feel my shoulder blades spreading like wings as I pump my elbows. My whole style of running has become more efficient and aerodynamic, now that my top half is as strong as my bottom half.
Running is a lot like writing novels: when you get tired, speed up. When you’re winded, slow down. Hydrate, underdress, and don’t think about how far you have to go, just focus on where you are now. Don’t try to go too fast, but push yourself. It may be a stretch, but the parallels are clear and unmistakable to me.
The reason I’m thinking this way is that I’m ready to disappear into a novel again. It’s a whole different way of writing from personal essays, autobiography, nonfiction. Instead of focusing on what’s around me and inside my head, my memories and sensory experience, it requires me to create and build and sustain a parallel life that’s tethered to my head like a balloon I climb up into every day and stay in for hours. Or maybe it’s a bathysphere, to continue my metaphor of submersion in water.
I haven’t written a novel for a number of years, but like running, it’s something my muscles know how to do instinctively because I’ve spent so many sustained months and years doing it. But even so, starting a new one is always hard, like starting distance running after a long time away from it. At the beginning of a novel, I get out of breath easily. I can’t seem to steady my pace. I overheat. I pull muscles and get cramps and often need to take a break. I feel flabby and uncoordinated. I watch faster runners whip by me.
The only trick I know is just to keep at it. As with running, there’s no other way: slow and steady, every day, rain or shine.
Breakfast of Nordic Champions
In a covered saucepan, cook ½ cup organic steel-cut oats in 1 cup of water and a pinch of salt. Add a dash of maple syrup and another of cinnamon. Stir a few times while it cooks, adding more water as necessary. When the oats are almost done, add ¾ cup wild low-bush blueberries and stir well and let simmer a few more minutes. When it’s hot, serve in a big bowl with a handful of chopped toasted almonds.
One recent hot, muggy morning, I went mushrooming in the woods with my neighbor, Dorcas. She and her husband live here year-round. We often see them out with their dog in all seasons, walking on the road by the lake, or snowshoeing or cross-country skiing through the meadows. Often, in the coldest months, we’re the only people along the road. We always stop and say hello and exchange news, a bunch of happy hermits, comparing notes.
Dorcas picked me up in her Prius after breakfast and whisked me off to her secret spot, a spot I’d sworn never to reveal to anyone or to revisit on my own. Mushroomers are jealous and possessive, and with very good reason.
We set off on foot through the woods on a well-kept path strewn with pine needles, soft and springy underfoot. It was cooler in the trees. A breeze lifted the hemlock and pine branches with soft whooshing sounds.
“Be careful where you walk,” she said. “It’s very hard to see them and easy to step on them by accident.”
I immediately slowed down and paid attention to the ground.
“Shoot,” Dorcas said after we’d walked for a while without finding anything, “maybe we’re too late, maybe they’re already all gone.”
Black trumpets are also known as black chanterelles and horns of plenty. They’re funnel-shaped, and when they dry, they’re inky black. Apparently, they’re one of the hardest mushrooms to find and also one of the most delicious, which explains why Dorcas is so careful about revealing her source.
We walked slowly along.
Dorcas is 74. She and her husband of 51 years recently took a six-day hike in the Dolomites, hiking eight or more strenuous, steep miles a day and sleeping in huts. She walked along as easily as I did, nimble and athletic. She never stopped scanning the ground right at our feet.
“Hey,” I called out helpfully every time I saw a mushroom or other fungus, no matter what kind, scalloped dun-colored fungi covering a fallen log, a dead-white toadstool with a neon orange underbelly. “There’s a mushroom. Maybe we’re not too late for the black trumpets after all.”
“The brighter the color, the more poisonous the mushroom,” she told me.
We continued on, slowly, searching every inch of pine needles, fallen branches, dried leaves, and earth.
“There, a whole patch,” she said. “But they’re dried ones again. The season may be over already. We got two big bags of them in August.”
I didn’t see them at first, and then I did: small black shriveled things against the dark ground, almost invisible, spreading for several feet along the path. They looked not even remotely edible, like bits of crumpled tarpaper or lumps of volcanic rock.
“They grow along the path,” she said. “I think they like a bit of sunlight.”
And then, at last, we found a patch of fresh funnel-shaped little mushrooms in a wet, boggy depression in the path: beautiful little horns on slender stalks, charcoal colored. We picked them all, a couple of handfuls – it had been a treasure hunt, and now we had been rewarded for our patience.
Back at the farmhouse, Dorcas pulled up in front of the barn and handed me the bag of mushrooms.
“I’m not taking your mushrooms!” I said. “No way!”
But she insisted. I knew how kind this was; such generosity does not come along very often. I accepted with thanks and took my treasures inside.
I cleaned the mushrooms by tearing them gently in half and shaking out the pine needles and bits of earth from their crevices and wiping them gently.They are very thin-skinned and delicate and velvety, and they come apart in long strips with an earthy perfume; they’re also called the poor man’s truffle. I admired them all afternoon there on the cutting board as I went about my day.
When it was time to cook dinner, I got out a large, shallow skillet, and in it, I sautéed 2 minced shallots and several minced garlic cloves in lots of butter and olive oil. When they were soft, I pushed them to the side and browned four skinless, boneless chicken thighs well; while they browned, I dusted them with sea salt, black pepper, paprika, and Old Bay seasoning. I removed them from the pan and added the mushrooms and cooked them for a minute or two, then put the thighs back in with a whisked-together sauce of about 1/3 cup each half-and-half and chicken broth plus a teaspoon of Dijon mustard. I covered the skillet and let it simmer for ten minutes. I served this delectable dish over wild rice with a side of steamed, garlicky baby spinach.
The mushrooms tasted clean, faintly smoky, and very rich, and their texture was delicate and meaty. They were the best I’d ever eaten.
While we ate, a ferocious windy rainstorm blew in and washed away the heavy heat and was gone in twenty minutes; afterwards, the air was golden and almost chilly. Fall had come, just like that.
When we woke up this morning, the air was chilly and tinged with autumn. After breakfast, Brendan and I set off into the woods behind our house and, after about forty-five minutes, on a wooded path that will remain secret forevermore, we found our own patch of black trumpets. Brendan spotted them. They were dried and black, like most of the ones Dorcas and I had found, but the fruiting body was there to be checked whenever they’re in season.
On the way home, Brendan stopped to look at an enormous scalloped fungus growing at the base of a tree.
“I think this is a hen of the woods,” he said.
Looking down, I recognized it from supermarkets, where it’s labeled “Maitake” and neatly packaged and sold for around $20 a pound.
We carried the whole beautiful, springy, fresh-smelling thing away with us in the plastic bag we’d brought; it weighed more than two pounds. When we got home, we identified it easily, since there are no known toxic lookalikes, and it looked textbook-identical to its photographs.
A little while later, we dropped our first-ever mushroom haul off at Dorcas’s with a note thanking her for showing us the way — a tribute to our mycology guru, and a sign of honor among thieves.
And now we have our own mushroom patches, two different kinds, to guard jealously and possessively.