rosemary, brown butter shortbread

It seems like that time of year (all the times except summer?) when there is no down time. Yesterday after school was a whirl of walking Rilke, filling out/dropping off my ballot, making cookies, cleaning the apartment, and reading for my meeting with Rabbi C tomorrow. Oh and did I mention prepping for class today?

So I settled for something easy for my bake last night. One thing I really love about shortbread cookies is that they don’t spread — and that means I can fit a full batch on two cookie trays and I’m not up until midnight baking/cooling cookies. I’ve been very happy with Mark Bittman’s “How to Cook Everything” shortbread, in part because it’s so forgiving of additions.

Yesterday I browned some butter and then set it to cool in the fridge while I ran (literally) my ballot to my polling place. I feel very lucky that I can get there by foot (plus, I needed some endorphins yesterday). Then, after mixing the cookies and popping them into the fridge to cool, I did a quick vacuum and put away the laundry. While they were baking, I made my slides for today and gave Rilke a belly rub (multi-multi-tasking!).

These cookies are crisp, delightful disks of buttery sweetness. They’re not overly decadent, but they are almost always what I’m craving (have you noticed that I’m obsessed with rosemary and brown butter yet?). Anyway, they’re up there with Deb Perlman’s Blondies recipe for “recipes I would someday like to frame/paint on my cabinet doors because I use them so often.”

 

Rosemary Brown Butter Shortbread

1 cup browned butter, cooled to solid

150 g sugar

1 egg yolk

190 g flour

60 g cornstarch

pinch salt

1.5 Tablespoons finely chopped fresh rosemary

 

Cream together butter and sugar for ~30 seconds to a minute. Mix in egg yolk and rosemary, then add flour, cornstarch and salt. Run the mixer until the dough comes together (I’ve found it to be very forgiving). Roll into two logs ~1″ in diameter, wrap in plastic wrap (or a ziploc bag) and place in the freezer for ~25-35 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 325° (Bittman suggests 275° for 30 minutes, but I’m too impatient for that).

Slice the logs into ~1/4″ slices and place on a paper-lined baking tray. They won’t spread much, so you can get them quite close.

Bake for 14-16 minutes (I like to check halfway through because I worry that one tray will cook at a different rate than another and I’ll need to swap them. You know your oven). I like them to be firm and only ever-so-slightly golden around the edges when I pull them out.

Let cool on the trays for at least five minutes before transferring to a rack.

This made me about 50 cookies, so I packed up half for coworkers and threw the other half in a ziplock in the freezer. I’m sure Future Me is going to be very happy to find them!

“This Will Only Hurt a Little” by Busy Phillips

I stayed up reading “This Will Only Hurt a Little” well past my bedtime, and then sneaked the last 15% of the book while my students were working on their history project in groups, racing through paragraphs that sucked me out of my classroom and into a more glamorous and adult world.

I started following Busy Phillips shortly after she started doing her Instagram stories. She is truly charming; as a viewer, I felt invited into her world. She shares the kind of details that make someone feel like they really know her (her penchant for margaritas and cinnamon gummy bears, her way of starting every story with “Guys!”, what she looks like when she’s working out or crying, her various rash/ache/bump questions — the kind we all get and then ask our friends “Has this ever happened to you? What IS it?”). She brings the same warm, best-friends-on-the-phone-watching-the-same-movie-from-our-own-apartments tone to her memoir.

The book tells the general story of her life — from toddling around the block alone for the first time to her current career stage (about to be a talk-show host, mostly retired from acting in movies/TV). It contains its fair share of celebrity gossip (who is an asshole, who drinks too much, etc), but Busy is also concerned with figuring out who exactly she is. She begins the book with an anecdote about an ex-boyfriend who told her she was “too much”. It’s a comment a lot of women get when they refuse (consciously or not) to cut themselves down to fit into the roles that are comfortable for the men in their life. So there is that theme through out. Busy wrestles with what it means to have healthy relationships with men, what it means to be a good mother, what it means to be a woman in an image-obsessed industry (and world, really).

The whole book sounds like Busy (at least, as far as I can tell from her Instagram stories). It’s casual, chatty, and anecdotal. And by anecdotal — I mean, she is more concerned with the events of a story than she is with setting, with connecting to larger meaning or context. Which is not to say that the book is not reflective; she has chosen a mostly coherent set of stories that trace the general trajectory of her life. I think what I mean is — at the end of the book, I was left wanting to know, “So what?”

And I’m trying to figure out why — because I read it in less than 24 hours and enjoyed the whole thing. The first section of the book covers her childhood and start of her time in LA, when she took her “Twelve thousand dollar pottery class” at LMU. To me, this was the most compelling section of the book. It’s difficult material; a 17 year-old boy raped Busy when she was 14. A boyfriend’s mother tells her she is going to hell for getting an abortion. She fights with her sister. Her world turns on the romantic affections of boys and partying with her friends. It’s a familiar story (and I don’t mean that dismissively); parts of it mirror my own high school experiences.

When her career “launches” with Freaks and Geeks and Dawson’s Creek, the narrative (for me) began to fall apart. While engagingly written, it began to feel like a recitation of famous names in different locations.

But maybe this is the point of celebrity memoirs? To give us plebeians a glimpse into the lives of the famous and (often) rich. But I think I want more from the memoirs I read: I want well-described settings that become characters in their own right; I want contextualization (in society or history or even within the narrative) that tells me this means something — about family, friendship, ambition, love, anxiety, motherhood, money, success, faith — whatever it is. My students are about to write their own memoir pieces; one of them asked me what the point was. I gave a little speech about the power of shaping our own narratives, but then I told them what I personally read for: “I want my understanding of what it means to be human to be expanded by your story. What will I learn about being human by knowing about your relationship to your grandfather? By reading how you overcame difficulty? Your perspective is unique and necessary.” Phillips is smart enough to deliver a story that expands our understanding of what it means to be human, but that is not in this book.                

housing & feelings

I love teaching. Here are some things I love about teaching:

I love finding and developing texts and activities that are challenging, relevant, and meaningful.

I love getting to know my students — their talents, challenges, sense of humor, quirks, joys, sadnesses, hopes.

I love thinking, as I develop my lessons, about how all of them respond, and adjusting my teaching to pull as many of them in as I can.

I love hearing their interpretations of the literature we read, hearing the connections they make between historical events as we study the past.

I even love grading, when I have the time to do it thoughtfully — it’s a chance to hear their thinking, see their growth, evaluate the effectiveness of my own teaching, and plan intelligently for the future.

I love developing curriculum with my team and co-teacher; they are an unbelievably smart and compassionate group of people.

I love running into students from previous years in the hallway and hearing how their lives are going, what they’re learning, what they’ve accomplished.

But there are many things about being a teacher that are stressful and hard and overwhelming. Things that it seems like we could fix as a society (and a school district), if we really wanted to.

A few weeks ago, an email thread at my school site snowballed. An administrator admonished the staff for not turning in their grades on time and then complained (to the entire staff) that the late grades would cause her to work on the weekend, which she did not want to do because it was “not fair to [her] family or to [her].”

I don’t think I’ve been more insulted by an administrator; that email thread happened to fall after I’d spent two weekends straight grading (an average of 11 hours each weekend). A teacher who wrote back gently reminding the administrator that most teachers work every weekend was given a formal letter of reprimand by the administrative team.

I feel valued by my students and their parents; I feel valued by my grade-level team and my department leads. But after email threads like the one I just described, it is clear that I am not valued; my work does not hold value for my administrative team.

And on the second of every month, after rent has been paid, I don’t feel valued by my district.

Last Friday our school bulletin included a blurb from the central office about a partnership with Roomily, a housing website that connects users who have a spare room with community members who cannot afford rent. The blurb is unclear; it notes that “OUSD is providing faculty and staff with resources that may help address [housing] hardship,” but a search of “housing” on the OUSD website returned only a PDF of a measure proposal that was vetoed. The description of Roomily leaves unclear if the hope is teachers with homes will sign up to house others, or if the intent is to find housing for teachers in need (or both?).

I believe in living in the community where I teach. I believe in being a part of the community where I teach because children don’t leave behind their homes and neighborhoods when they come into the classroom. Living in Oakland makes me a better teacher not just because I spend less energy commuting, but because students know I am in this with them.

I will never be able to afford a home in Oakland. My partner also works for a school, and even together we will never be able to afford a home in Oakland. We cannot even afford to rent a house together (we both lucked into below-market rents in spaces too small for both of us).

So when I read the blurb about Roomily, I felt very angry. Yes, the housing crisis in the Bay Area is bigger than OUSD. But — the solution to attracting and retaining teachers is not to find them rooms to rent in someone else’s house. Professionals (and teachers are professionals) do not want to rent a room in someone else’s house for their foreseeable future. To suggest that teachers should have to pay for being a teacher by being a perpetual roommate is insulting. It is insulting to the hard work teachers do and insulting the the children and families who rely on schools to provide an education and a path towards their dreams.

At a district-directed department meeting last month, the Humanities department looked at grade distributions by race. It was a sobering data set. Too many of our Black and Brown children are not flourishing; in fact, the data clearly shows that our school is failing these students. The reasons for this are complex, and they tie into the housing crisis described above.

(I’m sure you’ve read the studies; I’m sure you know that having a Black teacher for even one year can improve Black student outcomes for multiple years, including dramatically reducing their likelihood of dropping out; I’m sure you know that having race-matched teachers can reduce absences and suspensions. I’m sure you’ve looked at the teacher demographics of our district, which do not represent our students.

I’m sure you’ve done the math and the research and you see: when students of color don’t have culturally responsive teachers of color to act as role models, they’re less likely to go to college; because there are fewer college graduates of color, there are fewer candidates to come back and become teachers; because many college graduates of color feel financially responsible to their communities, they choose not to become teachers because they know teaching is not a ticket out of poverty.)

What recent college-graduate would choose to come and work here when the district is suggesting we find housing as someone’s perpetual roommate?

All of this is to say: serving the students of Oakland requires valuing and investing in the teachers of Oakland.

cinnamon-pecan oatmeal cookies

It’s be a Week, although I feel like I’ve been saying that all spring, and besides it’s only Wednesday. Rilke cut her foot last night and we spent several hours (and many dollars) at the emergency vet. Today, I accidentally let my second block out 10 minutes early (a serious no-no for 9th graders).

But. I have been working on a draft of an oatmeal cookie recipe that I’m pretty happy with. I made cherry-pecan oatmeal cookies last week, but was disappointed with them. They tasted too chewy — like the oatmeal wasn’t thoroughly cooked, and the butter flavor didn’t shine through.

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So I tinkered with a recipe that included ground oats as well as regular, upped the brown sugar, and came out with a pretty crisp, chewy cookie. But they were too thin, and even though I stored them overnight in a sealed plastic bag, they went stale quickly!

The tinkering continued. I replaced half the butter with shortening, reduced the brown sugar, lowered the oven temperature, and added some corn starch. The result? Tender, chewy cinnamon oatmeal cookies studded with pecans. I still want to try for a thicker version, but everyone seems pretty happy with these.

3 oz each butter and shortening, melted together

7 oz brown sugar

2 oz white sugar

1 tsp vanilla

1 egg + yolk

6 oz oats (3 oz ground)

4 oz flour

1 tsp baking soda

1 tsp cinnamon

1 tsp corn starch

1 cup chopped pecans

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Beat melted fats and sugar for 3-4 minutes, scraping down the bowl. Add egg + yolk and beat until ribbony. Add vanilla and beat until incorporated.

Fold in flour, oats, baking soda, cinnamon, salt, and corn starch, then mix in chopped pecans.

Chill the dough at least 3 hours. 30 minutes before baking, preheat the oven to 325°.

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Bake for 12 minutes at 325° and then let cool for 10 minutes on the tray. Cookies will look puffed and undercooked, but will collapse into a chewy, delicious, and solid cookie.

Rilke will have to be in her stitches for two weeks and I know already she’s going to be a nightmare of pent up energy by the end of it. But I’m grateful that it happened now, while there’s still time for it to heal before she goes to training. And grateful for my calm, wonderful vet, and grateful that I have the resources to take care of her.

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Currently Reading: Possession by AS Byatt

 

vegan blueberry-cherry pie & whimsy

On Friday, I took Rilke to see a behaviorist in the Central Valley; I had to take the day off work, which ended up being a small blessing. We drove the hour and a half through the hills and the orchards and the cow fields, past huge, newly-built mansions and worn, dilapidated houses and truck stops and feed stores. The behaviorist put me so at ease about Rilke, about her energy and her aggression and her anxiety. At the end of the month, we’ll head back to drop Rilke off for a 2-month board and train. I’ll make the trip out to see her once a week (so I can also get trained).

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Friday morning, though, before driving to the Central Valley, I made a vegan blueberry-cherry pie to take to Shabbat dinner at Amy’s house. Originally, I had planned on making a blueberry-peach pie, but the peaches were mealy and flavorless, so I rounded out the filling with some hastily-defrosted cherries leftover from the jam bars I made earlier this week.

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I used Cook’s Illustrated Foolproof pie dough, which I swear by — except I substituted Earth Balance for the butter. Yes, it was less flavorful, but it was worth it so that Amy and her daughter could dig in!

Crust (make 2+ hours ahead of time)

2.5 cups flour

1 tsp salt

2 T sugar

12 T butter OR Earth Balance

1/2 cup Crisco

1/4 cup cold vodka

1/4 cup cold water

Note: I have to make this in two batches, because my food processor is small. If you don’t have a food processor, do your best with a pastry cutter or fingers.

Pulse 1.5 cups flour in the food processor with salt and sugar until combined. Add in butter (cut into 1/4″ slices) and shortening (cut in 8 pieces). Pulse the food processor until the mixture comes together — it will look wet and cohesive. Scrape down the food processor, add the rest of the flour, and process again.

Turn the dough into a bowl and sprinkle with the vodka and water (mix together first). Fold the water and vodka into the dough — it will be very wet and tacky! Toss into a ziplock bag or wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 2 hours and up to 2 days.

Pie! 

20 oz blueberries

1 lb cherries (frozen is fine, defrosted and wrung out)

5 T cornstarch (if making this again with only blueberries or fresh cherries, I would reduce to 4 T)

1/2 cup sugar

1/2 tsp cinnamon* (there is a definite cinnamon flavor to the finished pie — everyone loved it, but just a head’s up!)

1/4 tsp salt

1 T butter or Earth Balance

Egg for egg wash

Turbinado sugar

Preheat oven to 400°.

Whisk together the cornstarch, cinnamon, salt, and sugar, then toss with the cherries and blueberries.

Roll out half the crust and lay in a 9″ pie plate. Pour in the filling mixture, and dot with 1 T butter (or Earth Balance).

Roll out the second half of the dough into a 10″x10″ rectangle and cut into ~10 1″-wide strips. Lay over the pie in a lattice pattern. Brush with egg wash and sprinkle with turbinado sugar.

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Bake for 15-20 minutes and then drop the temperature to 350°. Bake for another 30-40 minutes, covering the pie if necessary.

Let cool for at least an hour before cutting!

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On Sunday, R and I went back to my elementary school’s Spring Fair. It was lovely to show her all of my childhood haunts — the junk garden and tree house, the clay room, the back stairs with my class’s mural, the bench with my initials carved into it. We got “scrip”, the fair tickets I remember budgeting and hoarding as a kid, and bought ourselves a mini-key lime pie and I got my face painted. It was bright and warm but not hot; kid bands were playing a mix of new alt-rock songs and 70’s classic rock. Everything felt covered in a golden softness that carried through the rest of the day — coffee, soup, and baguettes at a cafe, book-browsing at one of my favorite bookstores, reading at the kitchen table while R cooked us bougie burritos (broccoli, tomatoes, quinoa, and a cashew-“cheese” sauce).

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cherry & orange jam bars

This week, I’ve been thinking of cherries. One of my favorite parts of summer is taking a bag of cherries on a lazy picnic and letting the sun warm them before eating.

This week has also been about patience. Mostly patience with myself. My anxiety-brain has been hyperactive this week, and I’ve had to work extra hard to stay focused on reality, and not the sharply spun worries my brain manufactures.

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These cherry and orange jam bars were a wonderful bright spot of success this week. I made the jam on Sunday — I literally dumped a pound of still-frozen cherries into a pot with the juice of one lemon and about a half cup of sugar, brought it to a boil, and then simmered on low for around 20 minutes. I poured it into a jar and let it cool in the fridge.

All of the recipes I looked at included oats, and since I was also making oatmeal cookies on Tuesday night, I wanted something more shortbread-like. This is a riff off of Mark Bittman’s Lemon Bars dough, which I made a few weeks ago and really liked.  These ended up crisp on the bottom, and solid enough that the jam didn’t ooze as you ate them.

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Cherry & Orange Jam Bars

3/4 cup butter

1 cup sugar

1/2 tsp vanilla

1 egg

1.5 cups flour

1/2 tsp baking powder

1/4 tsp salt

orange zest of one orange

3/4 cup cherry jam

Preheat the oven to 350°. Line an 8×8 pan with aluminum foil or parchment paper and lightly butter.

Cream butter and sugar together until smooth. Beat in egg, vanilla, and orange zest. In a separate bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, and salt, then fold into butter/sugar mixture. Mix until thoroughly combined.

Press 2/3 of the dough into the pan. Spread the jam over pan, leaving 1/2″ border around the edge (helps keep the jam from cooking to the side of the pan). Pinch small lumps of the remaining dough and “rub” between your fingers to flatten before dropping over the jam.

Bake for 35-40 minutes, until lightly golden and set in the center. Dust with confectioners sugar. Let cool completely before removing from the pan — I popped mine in the fridge overnight. Cut into 16 squares.

I can see lots of possible variations on this — brown butter, pecan or almond flour, different flavors of jam — or even peanut butter & jelly!

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scone thoughts (the rosemary-honey-orange-pecan scones of my dreams)

Baking for R has become a highlight of my week. Each recipe is an opportunity to lose myself a little in research and learning; I want to understand the science of chewy versus crisp cookies, the basic ratios that make up scones and cakes and brownies. Tuesday evenings, when I bake, have become a bright silence that buoys up the first half of the week. Grading and lesson planning are set aside for butter, sugar, eggs, and my beloved KitchenAid. And at the end of the evening, something sweet cooling in the kitchen, I sit down and write R a letter to tuck into the paper bag of treats — sometimes about a poem I’ve read, or a memory this baked good brings up, or a conversation we had that I’ve continued to think about.

A few weeks ago, I did a side-by-side comparison of two scone types: these flaky scones and these cream-only scones (scroll down the thread) with half a recipe of this glaze. The cream-only scones turned out just like Starbucks scones — crumbly, almost cake-like, and a little too sweet. The glaze was a real hit, though — tangy and very lemon-y.

 

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Flaky scones from All Things Pastry — R’s favorite

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Starbucks-imitation (cream-only) scones from Chowhound — everyone else’s favorite

R preferred Ana’s flaky scones. I made them last week with dried blueberries and lemon zest; this week R suggested something with honey and cinnamon. Keeping Ana’s recipe as a base, I thought about making a honey-rosemary scone (Cinnamon?! So normal!) and read this and this, about substituting honey for sugar (count it as a liquid, reduce oven temperature, use 75% of sugar). I also read this about honey glazes on scones (honey + powdered sugar + milk/water).

Then. I. Saw. This. Cinnamon-honey cubes?!

Anyway, I ended up settling on making TWO types of rosemary-honey-orange scones last week and had a taste off. The clear winner was an adaptation of Thomas Bouchon’s cinnamon-honey scones (I changed the flavor profile and cut a few corners to make the recipe less fussy. While I haven’t made the original, these were tender, full of flavor, and baked up beautifully).

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Rosemary honey and orange pecan scones

Two nights before 

Whisk together:

30 g flour

30 g sugar

5 g finely chopped fresh rosemary

5 g orange zest

With your fingers, rub in 30 g cold butter.

Stir in 20-30 g honey into a smooth paste. Flatten into a 4-inch square on plastic wrap. Freeze overnight.

The night before

Whisk together:

460 g flour, sifted

2.5 tsp baking powder (sifted!)

1/2 tsp baking soda

91 g sugar

In a mixer with the paddle attachment, beat in:

8 oz cold butter, cut into small pieces

and beat for 3 minutes. The directions say to to do this next step with the mixer running, but I’m not that coordinated, so I stopped it and poured in

135 g heavy cream and

135 g sour cream

then beat for 30-45 seconds, scraping down the sides once in the middle. Then I added 1/4 cup toasted, chopped pecans and pulsed the mixer for 30 more seconds.

Take the rosemary-orange honey-butter from the freezer and cut into small squares. Fold into the dough by hand to avoid smearing/breaking them apart.

Press the dough into a 7×10 rectangle on a piece of plastic wrap; cover and refrigerate for 2 hours.

After 2 hours, cut the dough into 12 squares. Place on a silicone-lined baking sheet, 1″ apart, and freeze for 2+ hours.

The day of

Bake from frozen for 28-30 minutes at 350°.

Fresh from the oven, brush with a 2:1 combination of browned butter and honey (I used 40 g butter to 20 g honey).

 

key lime pie bars & stress & shabbat

It was a stressful week. It is becoming more and more clear that Rilke’s territorial- and dog-aggression are well beyond anything that I know how to fix and I’ve felt at the end of my rope. It’s a sinking feeling of failure that seeped into the whole of the week, from waking to sleeping.

On Thursday, I went to the dispensary and got her CBD oil drops to help with her anxiety/fear in the apartment (which I’m pretty sure is what leads her to lunge/bark at the front door when my neighbors pass by.

And then I came home and baked. I’ve never made key lime pie before, and it’s R’s favorite, so I decided to make these key lime pie bars for our Shabbat dinner Friday night. It was therapeutic — to give all my attention over to the tiny limes (too small for my citrus press), to watch the magic of it setting in the oven, to have to be patient and wait to taste it in the morning.

Crust:

12 large graham cracker rectangles, finely crushed

3 T ground pecans

1/4 tsp cinnamon

1/3 cup sugar

7 T butter, melted

Mix together and press into an 8×8 pan lined with parchment paper. Bake at 350° for 10 minutes. Leave the oven on.

Filling:

3 egg yolks

14 oz sweetened condensed milk

1 lb key limes, juiced + 2 regular limes (a little over 1/2 cup)

4 tsp lime zest

Beat the egg yolks for 3-4 minutes. Pour in sweetened condensed milk and beat for 2-3 minutes more. Pour in lime juice and zest and beat for 2 minutes more, or until slightly thickened.

Pour over the crust and bake for 14 minutes, rotating once half-way through.

 

R and I had a lovely Shabbat dinner together — unhurried, full of conversation and laughter.

And this morning, Rilke and I ran through the woods, and I researched train & board facilities. It made me feel hopeful to read reviews of programs that talked about aggressive dogs (whose owners had been told the dogs would need to be euthanized) who were able to find peace and happy relationships. So even though I feel incredibly poor right now, it’s time to start saving so Rilke can get the training she needs to not be crazy.

currently reading: Educated by Tara Westover

I finished reading Educated over the weekend (a three-day reading binge that seriously slowed down my grading). I had read the excerpt published in Time and it ticked a few “I would really like that” boxes. A lot of the headlines about the book bill it as her “escape from a Mormon family;” I think a more true log-line would describe it as a difficult journey from a rural, survivalist family to a sense of self in the wider world.

It’s extraordinary — on multiple levels. The writing is clear and thoughtful; she balances action and reflection in a way that brings the reader with her in her emotional and educational transformation. There’s a thing that sometimes happens in memoirs — where there is a chasm between the reader and the speaker, a kind of interiority that does not translate. Educated bridges this chasm. Westover doesn’t overwhelm us with characters or metaphors or extended reflective monologues. She tells us a series of events from her childhood, braided with her growing awareness of self and world. Her stories are detailed, rich in setting and dialogue. (She says in this interview that this learned about narrative craft from the New Yorker Fiction Podcast; I can see how she mirrors the arc of a short story in each chapter.)

So the writing is good. But more than the writing, I was impressed with Westover’s refusal to allow any of her characters (i.e., family members) to be either black or white. Love exists alongside violence and neglect; belief follows sentences of profound doubt. Betrayal is recounted without blame or resentment. Religion is not demonized. It’s not comforting or easy, as several of the “fundamentalist-family-abuse-trap” stories I’ve read have been. Westover holds us in the ambiguity of being human in a difficult world. At its core, it is asking questions about how we define ourselves, about how we heal ourselves, about what we owe to our families.

And Educated is also one of the first memoirs I’ve read without a false sense of ending. There was no neat tying up, and yet at the end, the story felt finished.

All this to say — it’s a book well-worth picking up.

patterns of thought

This morning I am grading at a cafe near my house; it is warm and bright outside and I can see out the windows from my table. I’ve eaten 3 pastries, 2 egg sandwiches, and drunk 2 cups of coffee at this point; precarious piles of rubrics cover my table.

When I first sat down to grade, I felt very tender in the world, as though any semblance of stability and competence was just that — a semblance. It’s what happens when I’m stressed: catastrophe rears its head in all the corners at once. My mind becomes a manically stampeding anxiety-producer — R must be mad at me; I am a terrible dog owner; my parents are dying; my car engine is about to die; I’ll never be able to keep a clean home; my fitness goals are unattainable; I have disappointed all my dreams; I was never very good to begin with and this is just an affirmation.

It doesn’t matter that, really, the only thing stressful is the pile of podcasts and portfolios left to grade.

In less than two months, I’ll be 30. Of course this means I’ve been reflecting on what I’m going into my 30’s equipped with, on whether or not this vision of my life matches what I had hoped for, on what I want to change and what I want to keep.

In the moment of opening up my computer this morning to grade, and feeling very much like all I was capable of was crying, I did two things that Portia of even a few years ago would not have known how to do:

  1. I texted a friend about how I was feeling.
  2. I recognized that the stampeding anxieties were because of the grading stress; they were not based in reality.

Neither erases the anxieties, but they both help to ease my mind. My friend told me I could always go cry in my car if I needed to (practical advice). And told myself to “collect evidence” for the anxieties. Could I find “proof” in the words or deeds of others to support the reality the anxieties insisted was true? Of course I couldn’t.

I would not have known to do either of these things a few years ago. It is still a hard day, with a lot of real stress, but I am also happy that I am going into my 30’s better able to take care of myself without surrendering to the less productive (and less effective) things I did in my early 20’s.