The World Could Wash Away

January 20, 2015 § Leave a comment

The rain was incessant; hell bent on hanging around for our entire three-night stay in the Guatemalan rainforest, and completely apathetic to our need to cross the river to continue with our next phase of the trip to Antigua.

So it kept going with the consistency and voracity of a percussion line.

One might think that after 48 straight hours of rain that it becomes white noise, retreating into the vast spaces of the forest. It was, rather, the opposite. Amplified by the innumerable and dense vegetation, the sound of the rain reverberated in our ears and bones. It was unhinging, save for a couple of hours on our last night.

My sister’s friend, who was also serving in the Peace Corp., had set up a dinner with one of the families that lived in the rainforest. We had to walk down a narrow path through the forest to get to their home – a one-room piecemeal wood structure. The host family welcomed us in with smiles as big as the rainforest trees. Sans electricity, the room was lit solely by candles, allowing only bits and pieces to come alive, the rest fell away into blackness. Our feet made imprints on the dirt floor as we settled into our seats, and the sound of the rain on the tin roof melted away like the dark corners of the house, as if it wasn’t there.

They served us eggs, beans, tortillas and coffee; simple and exquisite. We ate by the pulsing light of the candles. Stories were told in English and Spanish, with the majority of the sentences lost in translation and laughter.

Outside the rain carried on without our attention and the river engorged itself with those drops. But inside for those couple of hours it felt as if the world could wash away and leave what we had there and everything would be ok.

Spaces We Once Inhabited

January 17, 2015 § Leave a comment

Lewis Mumford states in his seminal book on cities that civilization arose out of our ability to contain space. Vessels allowed humans to store things, which created continuity.

For Christmas break Mike and I piled our gifts, clothes and ourselves in the car and drove past calico landscapes of hibernation – black soil scattered with hues of browns and taupes – until we arrived in Kansas City. We’ve done this for the past three years – ever since we moved from Kansas City to Milwaukee.

I’ve put down roots in four cities: Saint Paul, Milwaukee, Lawrence (KS) and Kansas City (MO). And each new city I moved to meant I was leaving a city behind.

A couple days after Christmas Mike and I drove down the meandering, stately Ward Parkway through the Plaza and up Broadway – a route I drove almost every day for two years. Like a scientist I took inventory of what had changed and what stayed the same.

We passed the building where I used to work. There was a for lease sign in front and it was, by all accounts, empty. The tall, theatrical apartment building kiddy corner to my old place of employment looked the same with its art deco neon sign and its intricate cornices. It was the building I always looked at before I made my turn into the parking lot for work, not only because it’s a beautiful building, but also because it reminded me why I had undertaken a graduate education in urban planning – that beautiful, unique places are worth saving and making.

In Invisible Cities a young explorer, Marco Polo recounts and describes to the old, Mongol ruler, Kublai Khan, the cities he visited in the Mongol’s empire. The book is full of aphorisms that are clothed and embedded in physical descriptions of cities  – “you take delight not in a city’s seven or seventy wonders, but in the answer it gives to a question of yours.”

We continued our drive north to the River Market, a market we frequently went to when we lived in KC, and found ourselves in the midst of closing time – vendors packing up their cars and a mostly empty parking lot. We ordered coffees in one of the stalls, and walked by the last of the vendors selling mounds of aromatic spices: anise, clove, turmeric. These were the smells I remembered. It was a few years before when a photography class I was in convened at the River Market. It was early morning and the vendors were just beginning to lay out their bounty. But that day it was not the smells I remember, it was the brilliant sun punctuating the human interactions that played out in front of my lens. It was me feeling, for the first time, free to be a documentary photographer – not as a profession but as an extension of my curiosity.

Many of the streets in the River Market were torn up so once we found a way out, we curtly made our way back to downtown. Like a skipping stone, it takes large (car-powered) leaps to go from the northern-most point in the River Market to the central business district to Westport and then to the Crossroads. I never liked the disjointed nature of KC’s greater downtown but on that day the time in the car had been fertile ground for remembering.

If déjà vu had a cousin I think it would be the moments when you repeat a routine you did years before. Driving down Broadway felt familiar in a visceral sense, and yet the reason I was there, my whole life, in fact, was completely different. For as long as I can remember, I’ve known that the passage of time is imbued in cracked paint, vacant buildings, new buildings, and torn up roads. But in the car I started to understand that time demands to be seen when we go back to the spaces we once inhabited – the places we once thought were ours in some small way. Those places are the vessels that contain our movement. They enfold the questions we once asked and spotlight the answer to those questions – ourselves.

We passed through my favorite intersection in Kansas City, Pennsylvania and Westport Road, and took a right on Pennsylvania and parked outside of Californo’s, the restaurant where we had our wedding reception. We went inside and were greeted immediately by a server. We told him that we had our reception here and could we look around? He showed us around describing the rooms and, again, I told him we had our reception here and were familiar with the layout. He continued his informational tour and I gave up on the expectation that going back to this place would feel like it was ours again, that it would feel the same. We were inside for maybe five minutes and then we pressed on as the sun set and we grabbed a drink at the new bar on the corner.

Amsterdam Canal Ride

January 6, 2015 § Leave a comment

It’s quite rare to see a city from the perspective of its foundations – to be below it’s entryways and streets. On our last night in Amsterdam we stepped down into a boat with our friends, Bryan and Danielle, and Danielle’s parents, and meandered through the canals of Amsterdam. It was a stark contrast from both our 4th floor canal house that we were staying in, and our daily walks – both vantage points were thrilling – but to float below the canal houses and through the bridges afforded an unrivaled peace in this flowing, effervescent city. So, if you go to Amsterdam, pick up some cheeses and salami, two bottles of wine, and get yourself on a boat an hour before the sun sets, ok?

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Wonder

January 3, 2015 § Leave a comment

The light is fading quickly. The living room is suffused with a muted glow that happens once the sun falls behind the buildings across the street from our house. We just finished a documentary about K-2. I’ve watched about three different documentaries on K-2 in the last five years and it never gets old: The shock of seeing specks of people move towards a point in the sky, surrounded by the most inhospitable landscape imaginable. The ability to only comprehend the scale of the mountain by seeing a tiny human speck on it, and still not be able to comprehend the scale or the beauty or the reality of it all. The human voices that come from the people who are willing, even excited, about being a speck, an ant in a sea of ancient monsters. And always, always the question deep inside somewhere that wonders: can I do that? Am I actually capable of climbing a mountain?

And now it’s January 2nd, the day after K-2 day, and molasses grapefruit cookies are cooling on the counter. Besides waning, residual feelings of inadequacy from the documentary, I’m feeling calm. I’m feeling capable. Not of following through with resolutions because I didn’t make any, but just of being ok.

Do resolutions help or hinder? Does saying something out loud, or writing it down on a piece of paper make it more real, more urgent, more? Or is it a false reboot to make us think that a new world has begun on our new terms?

The climbers in the documentary spoke as if they were under a spell by high-altitude climbing. They dreamed about climbing night after night, year after year. Once they had summited one mountain they could not exist in the world without wanting to climb another. The high, the meditation, the risk, it all was imprinted on them after that first climb.

Upon listening to a Radiolab podcast the other day about how to value nature, I was struck by the ending. After spending the last part of the podcast debating whether assigning an economic value to nature helps people value it, or lessens its role, a scientist offered an alternative perspective: we should think of the natural world in terms of a limitless bastion of ideas and creativity to be inspired by and draw from.

What a change in conversation. To speak of unbounded, unknown potential instead of stagnant or relative worth is, simply put, practicing humility. It is standing in wonder and choosing to be a tiny speck, continually.

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Trying to come up with this recipe has been on my mind for about a year after M came home one day from Bavette with a giant molasses cookie. We have been fans of a certain molasses cookie that I’ve baked for years but this grapefruit molasses cookie was familiar yet slightly exotic- like it was our cookies’ fun, eccentric uncle. The bitter from the grapefruit was subtle but added a pop of punctuation to the heavy, almost burnt- like ambiance of the molasses. Light and heavy, bright and earthy, sweet and bitter. Too many wonderful things to count.

Molasses Grapefruit Cookies

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

In a small bowl combine:

3 1/4 cups of all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons of baking soda

1 1/2 teaspoons of ground ginger

1 1/2 teaspoons of cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon of allspice

1/2 teaspoon of salt (I used finely ground sea salt)

In a large bowl beat together:

2 sticks of butter, softened

1 egg

1 1/2 cups brown sugar

1/3 cup of molasses

slightly less than 1/4 cup of grapefruit juice (preferably from a freshly cut grapefruit)

In a small bowl set aside:

4 tablespoon of sugar

1 tablespoon of grated grapefruit peel

Combine the flour mixture with the butter mixture. Roll into balls and then roll each ball in the sugar mixture. Bake for 9-11 minutes. Careful, these are naturally dark cookies so don’t leave them in for longer than 11 minutes. Trust me, they’re done.

Yield: about 32 cookies

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