Author Archives: lisak

A Tiny Pink Prayer

A tiny pink prayer floats in the midst of a thousand others arcing up to Heaven. Anguish, fear, and pleading form the fabric around helium bubbles of hope. Some are voiced as desperate ramblings, bargains and promises. Others are mute supplications, wordless beseeching from overwhelmed spirits who have nothing left to say. A few thanks are scattered in this cloud, like salt, making this onslaught of asking more palatable. So many prayers, invisible and yet strong enough to bear the weight of the world.

Iryna’s plea, the pink one with a tiny flash of glitter, is not for her. It is for her brother. It is a simple plea. It is for bread. It struggles through the crowd, gets jostled and pushed off course. But it stays true and steadily, steadily rises to reach the ear of God.

It is the early days of Ukrainian independence from Russia. The euphoria of their declaration has dissipated like the bubbles in celebratory champagne. Now comes the clean up and hangover. The hard work begins as Ukraine works to redefine their autonomy, and redirect their efforts to their own sovereign state.

Hyperinflation, a destabilized currency and a shrinking economy make for a hard landing back to reality. Add to that equation the fallout, literally, of the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl. Life in Ukraine is a slog, an uphill battle as politicians duke it out for control of the country.

But none of this makes any sense to an eight-year old girl. All Iryna knows is that she is hungry, her brother is starving, and there is no guarantee of hot food on the table at the end of the day.

Iryna’s mother works at the railway station, cleaning train parts. There, a cadre of women do backbreaking labor, using strong chemicals with no protective gear. It’s dangerous work, but they have no choice. They shoulder the welfare of their family, the feeding of their children. They do what needs to be done.

It’s Pay Day. Her mother has waited for hours in line to get paid, in cash, only to have the pay clerk slam the window shut in her face when her turn finally arrives. Yet again, they have run out of money to pay the workers, and Iryna’s mother faces the prospect of three hungry children at home, and no means to buy groceries for them.

Iryna is lucky, in a way.  She gets one meal, lunch at school. But her brother is too young for school. All he has is an empty belly.

It’s been three days since he’s had food. He cries piteously to his mother, but she can only massage his stomach and whisper words of comfort. If words were edible; he would have a veritable feast of love.

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never fill me. Words are not manna from Heaven.

Iryna prays to God, asks for bread. Just that, nothing else. She explains that she doesn’t want it for her, but for her brother. She doesn’t ask for any other food, just please, God, bread for her brother.

A miracle happens. Overnight, the heels of bread in the breadbox regenerate themselves, become a full loaf. It happens over and over again. Whenever the bread dwindles down to the last two slices, the next day a new loaf appears.

It’s sturdy black bread, the kind that nourishes and stays in your stomach for more than five minutes. It has a solid heft, defying those who scoff at miracles. It is heavy, peasant bread, and it sustains one little boy.

Iryna never asks how the loaf renews itself. She doesn’t want to know the earthly mechanics of how it happens. She doesn’t want to see the smoke and mirrors involved. In a way, she needs it to remain a miracle, a symbol of hope that life will get better, and that there is a God looking after her.

Fast forward twenty five years:

Iryna is in America now. She recounts to me the first time she went grocery-shopping here. She marvels at how $300 in Ukraine gets her a few pieces of meat, and some staples, but here in America, she can fill three carts to the brim.

It is a miracle hidden in the everyday. It’s not dramatic like the unending black bread, but it is a wonder, nevertheless.

Iryna sends up another balloon of a prayer, this time clothed in sunny yellow with a daisy attached to it. This time, it’s a whisper of thanks.

 

 

 

Gluhwein

 

It’s anything but summer now.

There is snow all around us, piling around the wooden stands of the Christkindlemarkt . Flakes compact together in solidarity, making the fussgaengerzone as perilous as an ice skating rink. The wind is keening out of Siberia. If you listen closely, you can almost hear the whispers of carols from the East.

It’s minus nineteen Celsius, and I have never been so cold.

There doesn’t seem to be enough clothing to keep me, or any human warm. Fleece-lined boots, five layers of woolen undershirts, sweaters, more sweaters and heavy wool coat, and still Winter’s icy fingers manage to tickle my neck, find the one square millimeter of bare skin and freeze it. My bones ache, and my muscles are rigid from so much shivering.

We hurry from stall to stall, trying to slow down to admire the handiwork, to shop and be merry. But it’s too damn cold, and we give up, rush on, looking for shelter from the relentless wind.

The only shelter seems to be the gluhwein stands, sensibly sprinkled every few meters. German logic strikes again, and we are grateful. Form follows gluhwein, and who are we to argue?

We bounce over to one, since it is hard to walk gracefully when one is padded and dressed like Bibendum. The fragrance of red wine and spices hits us like a tropical breeze – warm and seductive. The earthenware mugs beckon like an oasis to our chilly souls.

We order two of them, and watch eagerly as our cups are filled. The final touch? A sugar cube soaked in brandy, and then set afire. As we clumsily grasp our cups, we dare to take off our gloves, and hold our Popsicle fingers over the miniature campfire of a sugar cube. One push, and the sugar cube plops into the pool of red, and flames briefly hotter before sputtering out.

We gulp as quickly as we can the warm wein. The man at the next table is feeling his brandied sugar cube acutely, and belts out a special ode to the majestic Christmas tree. What he lacks in talent he makes up for in volume and enthusiasm. Boy, is he enthusiastic!

His voice is rough and gravelly, like a rusty wire brush attacking last summer’s greasy grill. He gulps another mouthful of wine, and this time dances a little jig in time, sort of, to his ditty.

Oh tannenbaum, oh tannenbaum, da da da da da da da da!”

Apparently, humming da da da when you don’t remember or know the lyrics is universal.

He’s having a grand old time with himself, and we laugh at him, and with him as he ventures into his special version of Stille Nacht. In the freezing cold, the warm wine has turned this reserved German into a juke box hero. The metamorphosis is amazing, and is happening to people all around us.

We fuel up at the bratwurst stand next door, the smell and sizzle of sausages as good as a siren song in this gelid Munich winter. Extra lashings of mustard and curry ketchup complete this gastronomic feast. Eaten out of paper boats with rudimentary wooden forks, the cold elevates the humble sausage to food of the gods. How can food taste this good??

Sated, we brace ourselves, and re-wrap the shawls, scarves and coats around us. In the shadow of the somber Fraunkirsche and the playful chiming of the glockenspiel, we venture back into the Bavarian winter, celebrating the lights, the snow, and the traditions of a Munich Christmas season.

 

 

 

 

Thanksgiving in a Convent, in Las Vegas. (Yes, you read that correctly.)

Thanksgiving is probably the first holiday for many college freshmen when they realize how far from home they are.

It was for me.

The buzz and blur of the first weeks of school has died down, and the real work of learning has begun in earnest. As the holiday weekend approaches, I realize that I am not one of the lucky rich kids who will fly 3,000 miles home for turkey and stuffing.  I am also too shy and awkward to make friends, to be invited to someone else’s home for dinner.

A bleak lonely weekend looms ahead of me. The dining hall will be closed, and I wonder if my Thanksgiving dinner will be a pot of rice made in the tiny two-cup rice cooker my mother sent me off to college with. (Yes, the rice cooker is de rigueur for any kid from Hawaii going off to college to the Mainland.)

At the last minute, a dorm mate invites me home with her. Okay, it’s not really to her home. It’s more like a visit to her aunt.

I accept, and put the rice cooker back on the shelf.

One small detail: her aunt is a Catholic nun. In Las Vegas.

This beats a pot of rice any day.

I’ve never met a nun before. I’ve never been to a convent before. And I never imagined there would be a convent with nuns IN LAS VEGAS.

Wednesday after classes, Cheryl and I pile into her 1970-something Chevy or Pontiac or whatever boat of a car it is. Full tank of gas, cassette tapes at the ready, and a stockpile of snacks and we’re off, paddling down the desert highway.

Saguaro cacti stand honor guard along the road, creosote bushes slink lazily along the dunes. The road twists and turns, climbs and descends through bleakly beautiful country. The serenity of the emptiness is captivating and hypnotizing.

I count down the miles gleefully. For someone who grew up on an island, a journey longer than two hours is something to celebrate, indeed. We chase the sun as it sets behind the hills, and the shadows of the cacti grow longer. It’s like a ride into infinity.

Everything looks like a movie set. The clouds and mountains are making some serious drama in the waning light. All that’s missing is a lone cowboy’s silhouette on the horizon.

It’s dark when we reach Las Vegas. It’s cold, too, much colder than I expected. I sink deeper into my cotton sweatshirt, not having yet learned how to dress for winters on the Mainland. I haven’t learned yet the value of wool.

As we pull into the convent’s parking lot, utilitarian electric lights greet us. I am expecting, what? A cathedral? Monks in woolen cowls? Midnight chanting? Notre Dame?

Yes, actually.

None of that meets me. The convent looks like a dorm, serviceable and simple. There are no stained windows, no arching candelabra and no marble statues of saints to be seen. It is all wood, concrete, clean and tidy.

I think there are about twenty nuns there. They aren’t wearing wimples or long black garb. I am expecting The Flying Nun. I get a roomful of benevolent aunts in gabardine pants with elastic waistbands.

They show me to my room, a sparse neat affair with one twin bed. I fall asleep, breathing in the crisp dry air of the high desert. The lights and temptations of Las Vegas are a good twenty miles or so away, and so I sleep the sleep of the innocent.

The next day is Thanksgiving. As we sit in the refectory, the kind nuns carve the turkey and pass around the sides. Plus side, there’s wine. (I always thought the Catholics were cool because they smoke and drank, not like the strict Protestants I went to church with.) They laugh and chatter; they are nothing at all like the stern humorless nuns I grew up seeing in movies or reading about in books. They not even carrying around wooden rulers.

As we sit, the nuns regale me with stories of how they play the nickel slots, and more. They think if they win, God has blessed them. They start to lose their halos in my eyes, and become human. They are warm and full of life. I lose my self-consciousness as we eat and drink on this day of thanks.

The next day, Cheryl takes me to Zion National Park. It has snowed recently, and the red rocks are practically screaming crimson next to the pure quiet white. Green pine trees and agave bow gently under the weight of their frosting. The cacti stand by aloofly, all hands off in attitude.

It looks magical. Nature is the best conjurer.

As we head back to Phoenix and the reality of life in a college town, I think about Zion, the snow, the aunts and this Thanksgiving.

It is the first in a long line of Thanksgivings away from family. And yet, since then, each one has been special. I have found a way to make it so. I have served turkey dinner at 35,000 feet to guests travelling. I’ve spent way too many of them in the bowels of kitchens, cooking for unseen faces. Sometimes it has meant a big dinner with family, other times it’s been making family out of the small army of friends around me.

Thirty three Thanksgivings have gone by since I’ve left Hilo. Some have been better than others. Each one has been a reason to be thankful.

As Number Thirty Four approaches, I again count my blessings. Each Thanksgiving has become part of my memories, like a colored piece of glass in a stained glass window. Each one has a story. Some I have forgotten, others catch the light and shine brightly despite the years. All have a reason to be there, and to make up the tapestry of my memories.

Maybe you will be lucky and have the chance to celebrate with nuns in a convent outside Las Vegas one day. Or you might be in some far-flung place where no one knows what pumpkin pie is. You could be at home, watching the parades and games on the television. You might be alone in a dorm, with a pot of rice in hand.

It doesn’t matter. There is so much for which to be thankful. Always.

Wherever you are, I wish you a most thankful Thanksgiving.

 

 

Orchids in Syria

Yaseen points decidedly at the fuchsia phalaenopsis orchid at the grocery store.

We’re getting the last few items we need before heading off to the television studio. I’ve selected a bouquet of autumn flowers; the usual chrysanthemums and daisies, all russet and gold, something to bring fall color to the table.

I ask Yaseen what he thinks of the bouquet. He smiles in his polite way, which tells me he doesn’t like it. He then walks over to the orchid display, and chooses the brightest one there.

Into the cart it goes, despite the price tag, and a few minutes later, we are back in the car, on our way.

Yaseen has been tasked with holding the orchid, and I think he has fallen in love with it. He gazes at it, gently touches its petals. He pulls out his phone, and snaps picture after picture of it.

I ask him if he has ever seen an orchid before, if they even exist in Syria.

He shakes his head, not once taking his eyes off the blooms.

I try to explain to him as best as I can that it’s called a phalaenopsis orchid, because it looks like a butterfly. I don’t know the Arabic word for butterfly, and I’m not sure Yaseen knows what it is in English. We are at an impasse.

It doesn’t seem to matter that he can’t understand what I am trying to say. He is under the orchid’s spell, and I’m too busy trying to get us to the studio on time.

It dawns on me that orchids must be exotic to him, but for me, they are almost weeds. They thrive in the warm humid climate of Hawaii, so much so, that I swore I would never have orchids in my wedding bouquet.

In the arid world of Syria, I think it must be a different story.

In Yaseen’s world, his home was bomb into oblivion. Seven of his siblings are now scattered throughout the world, and the eighth remains in prison in Syria for criticizing the government.

Yaseen’s universe shrank to four years in a refugee camp in Jordan, where his youngest child was born. It was a place of tents and “temporary” shelters that stretched row upon row, as far as the eye can see. It was a sprawl with no privacy, and definitely no delicate flowers. The only thing flowering there were the noxious blooms of uncertainty, good only for weighing the spirit down.

Yaseen’s sphere now is an apartment in Tukwila, where he and his family are carving out a new life. Paved roads, a supermarket right down the street, passenger (not fighter) jets roaring overhead and a place for his children to play have replaced the dismal camp.

I see why he stares at this orchid so raptly. I understand why he drinks in its beauty. A year ago, he was in a camp, awaiting permission from the world. And now, he holds an orchid. It must be a bit surreal for him.

I keep my eyes on the road. I smile, because I feel Yaseen’s joy. I peek at the orchid again, and it is indeed beautiful.

Roots

 

The fickle fruits of summer are fading now. Green goes to gold, soft petals give way to durable seeds under clouds that sweep lower and darker in the sky.

Autumn makes her burnished entrance. No springy pastels or summery glitter herald her arrival. Instead, gloriously muted shades of russets, orange and fading green move into the center of the palate, act as her calling card.

Who knew aging and decay could be so gorgeous?

Have you ever tried to count the infinite shades of brown that fall from trees, nestle amongst stones, and huddle in ditches? Like the nap on a yard of velvet, a slight change in direction reveals the tonal richness of these humble colors.

After the shiny brightness of summer, our senses walk a more measured pace in the calming act of change, hibernation and loss. The blithe warm days snap sharply on the first frosty morning.

Fair-weather foliage may wither and tumble, but the roots remain strong and steadfast. Hidden deep in mute brown soil, they knot and brace for harsher months ahead.

These roots are like that one faithful friend you have. You know her; she’s quietly present, isn’t the gregarious type. And yet, when the weather turns colder and the winds threaten to topple us, her calmness keeps us grounded and steady. She’s the one that holds the umbrella over you when everyone has dashed indoors to shelter from the rain. She hands you chocolate, wine, a doughnut when life threatens your clarity. She talks you off emotional ledges, reduces scary monsters to shadow puppets on the wall.

You don’t have someone like that in your world, you say?

But you do.

Look in the mirror. She’s standing right in front of you, and try as you might, you will never get her to leave you.

Even when you ignored her, she was there. She whispered to you, asking you to try, just one more time. She ignited your resolved, tipped your chin up and wheeled you forward. She helped you don your battle armor, and celebrated success, failure and life with you. Just as importantly, she told you when to walk away, to regroup and choose another path. She protected you.

She was your root.

She still is.

She always will be.

I’m firmly middle aged now. My glossy summer season is behind me. Oh, there are flashes of it, like the last rose that blooms just before the first hard frost of the season. But the shadows relentlessly get longer and the sun travels lower in my heavens. Less glitter, more velvet; that’s the fabric of my world.

Things are calmer, slower and lovelier than ever before. Less distracts me, and so I see the woman in the mirror more clearly. Together we trace every wrinkle, worry over every gray hair, and push up each sagging chin line. We toast our victories with thimbles of champagne. We giggle loudly, because somehow, we can now that we’re older. We rage against the cruelties of the world, and we resolve to make the world kinder.

We make a pact that we will make every day count, and that we will forgive ourselves more.  We will take guiltless joy in both days where we beard the lion, and in days spent counting grass leaves. We will comfortable with our strength.

In this autumn, she is my root.

She always has been.

She always will be.

The Spaces In-Between

The true art of lace is not the lace itself; it is the empty spaces in between that give a spool of thread its definition. The magic happens in the nothingness between the floss. And as magic goes, it is invisible.

The beauty of Nothing is too often overlooked. Because there is nothing to see, we ignore it.

But Nothing is there and present. It gives emphasis to the Somethings in our world. It defines the boundaries, traces the outlines and sharpens the focus of all the things with which we fill our lives.

We fear Nothing. We dread the void. We run through our days, filling every minute to avoid the stillness. We run on a treadmill of emotional highs and sensory delights. We celebrate the mediocre to justify our adoration and our need to have a brimming cup of Fool’s Gold, to feel like we belong.

And yet, in the quiet is where the important work happens. Seeds germinate under the blanket of soil. The field looks barren, a Kingdom of Nothing. But in reality, seeds need to break their covering in order to sprout. Destruction of the boundary, of the shell is necessary for construction. And this takes place under the disguise of Nothing happening oh so silently.

Wounds don’t heal with constant prodding. At some point, they need the miracle of Nothing to form ugly scabs, to re-knit and mend. When it looks like nothing is happening, everything important really is. We hide those scars on our skin, in our souls. But why, when those scars are trophies of some of our hardest-won victories?

Nothing gives us time to correct, to grow, to make sense of the chaos that spins us around. The empty space lets us hear the echoes, see the shadows and make sense of the senseless. Even a muddy pond can become a clear pool if left to settle undisturbed, the miracle of Nothing.

I have learned to love Nothing. I thrill at the way it gives definition to a full life, the way the tang of lemons offset the sweetness of meringue in pie. Nothing is like a soaking rain after a long dry spell. Everyone wants the sweet and the happy, but without a pause in between, even sweet and happy deteriorate to monotony. In cooking, and in life, a drop of vinegar can take good to extraordinary.

Sometimes I get into my car at the end of a long day, and just sit to listen to the silence before I start the motor and head back home. Before I let the chatter of the radio and the pandemonium of traffic take over the next hour of my life, I sit, just exist, and let the muddy pool in my head calm down.

 

 

 

Step It Up

Curiosity finally got the better of me tonight.

I’ve walked by the different classes in the gym so often, thinking how fun they look. I’ve told myself a million times that one day I would try one.

Tonight, the stars aligned, traffic was kind and I made it in time for a “power step” class.

Side note: I can’t dance, and I have no sense of rhythm, so spoiler alert here, this may not end well.

The music starts, LOUD and pumping. The students select their step benches from the stack against the wall and position them around the studio. They are all old hands at this. I sink a little into myself as I see this. I choose a spot on the end, close to the window, hopefully out of the teacher’s direct line of vision.

She sees me anyway, smiles, sort of, and away we go!

No gentle warm up, this is not yoga. It’s STEP STEP STEP, turn, STEP STEP kick turn STEP STEP STEP! I can barely make out what she is saying through the crackly microphone over the pulsing beat. I am so out of step from the very first count.

Left! No, wait, the OTHER left. No wait, what? That original left! Dang it. I’m lost again. And now you want me to TURN? Dip! Stomp, walk it out. STEP STEP STEP!

The students step and stretch furiously. They twirl and pirouette. I try, too, and almost end up spinning into the innocent barbells quietly sitting against the wall next to me. I am dizzy, but still trying desperately to keep up. I am NOT quitting, oh hell, no.

It takes me half the class to realize that I should NOT be watching the teacher in the mirror, because she’s a mirror image! Duh. No wonder I’m stepping off with my left foot when everyone else is prancing with their right. Sigh…….

I sweat furiously. I’m embarrassed, but also laughing because, in truth, it’s simply a lot of fun. I have no idea where I am in the sequence of this “step dance” but at some point, I don’t care and I just hop along as best as I can.

I feel successful at the end of the hour because I haven’t run into the wall, or tripped over the step, or lost my cookies with exertion. My legs are killing me, I’m giggling to myself at what a ludicrous show I must have made. And then the instructor looks directly at me, and tells me “good job!”

I think it’s because I didn’t give up and walk out halfway through. No matter, I’ll take that compliment!

As I make my way to the locker room, it dawns on me. This is what it must feel like for my students just starting to learn English.

The words must rush over their heads, and swirl around their ears, too quick to catch. At some point, I wonder if they know which way is up or down as the chain of sentences binds them up and spins them around. Do they just march in place, trying to keep time?

I think, too, that just like I got everything reversed in the mirror, it must be discombobulating to try to write from left to right, when all your life, you have started from the other direction. At some point, does it all become just a kaleidoscope of dots and dashes? Does anything make sense?

Flailing about tonight, being lost and trying to hang on was a good reminder for me. To be out of my element, to be the one turning left when everyone else is going right.

Yeah, I needed that.

I’ll be back for more classes. And maybe, just maybe, while I’m searching for another way to get my students to understand my English, I’ll be counting a one two step step step beat in my head.

 

 

 

 

Finishing a Chapter

 

(Lisa’s note: this happened on November 19, 2016, when I decided to close the restaurant part of my business. The wholesale part is still going strong. Thanks everyone!)

They file in on cue, awkwardly, hesitantly, a bit suspicious of what is to come.

Nine gentlemen walk through the door of the restaurant. They will be our final guests before we shut the doors for good.

I made the decision to walk away from the restaurant world three months earlier. For someone who worked most of her career to finally pilot her own ship, it was an unimaginably hard decision to make.

I lived and breathed restaurants for almost twenty years.

My brain taps along to the Morse code of the ticket machine. My heart pulses with the hum and swoosh of the dish machine. My head pivots to sound of the bell ringing, calling servers to come get the food. My soul loves the sound of utensils clinking on plates.

But now it feels like preparing for death. In a way, it is. I am saying goodbye to a way of life that I have embraced for so long. And like anyone facing death, I wonder if there is life on the other side of the Styx. I wonder if it will hurt. I wonder what I will do next, if there is indeed life after….

I do know one thing. I don’t want to slink away at the end of the night. I don’t want to post a note on the door for my employees telling them we are no more. I don’t want to just disappear.

I want to go out proud, and with dignity.

I want the last meal I serve to the public to be one that means something, that will make people remember us kindly, perhaps. I want to use my restaurant one last time to be a part of the neighborhood and do good.

The nine men walking in the door are key players in this. They are from a organization in the neighborhood that helps people deal with HIV. And these nine men have been living with HIV for a long time now.

Tonight, they will do me the honor of being my last guests.

Of course, I cook way too much food. Of course, they don’t eat half of what I think they will. We end up distributing care packages of food around the park to the unseen people, the ones that are forgotten, the homeless.

The men sit, a bit nervous, not sure of this largess that is being thrown their way. But they eat, and as they eat, they begin to open up.

They tell their stories. They talk about their pain. They recount their daily lives. And all through the dinner, in the quiet camaraderie, they simply are. It’s wonderful to see.

I don’t go out to talk to them. I am too shy, and I don’t want to them to feel obligated to thank me or anything like that. I want them to eat and enjoy, to let me, let us do what we do best: feed and serve.

I’m holding myself together pretty well, like a lighted firecracker bound together with duct tape. Despite the emotions of the night, my stern impermeable facade stands tough.

And then as they get up to leave, one of the men hands me a silver dollar. He gives each of us one. He calls them his worry coins, says he keeps one in his pocket to turn over and spin when he feels nervous.

Another man, actually several of them tell me thanks, and say how this was their Thanksgiving dinner, since for many, they are estranged from their families.

I crumble. I feel like I failed. I wish I had thought about it more, about their circumstances. Had I realized that this would be their holiday dinner, I would have made a turkey, a traditional feast. I feel thoughtless and foolish.

But they smile radiantly at me, and my staff and I take comfort in that. We may have filled their stomachs; they have filled our souls.

After they leave, I lock the front door. We clear up the dining room, and I make one last family meal. Because this staff, these people who are still here with me, they are family now. We eat, laugh, cry a little.

I touch the silver dollar in my pocket, now my talisman for luck.

I get home, walk through the door into the dark living room. I pick up the dog and sit, hugging her like a rag doll.

It’s been a good chapter.

It’s been a great story, so far. It’s not over yet.

Tomorrow, I sharpen my quills and start writing the next page.

 

 

 

If Wishes Were Fishes

“Plip, plip, plip.”

It’s the sound of hundreds of minnows leaping out of the tide and throwing themselves like silver pebbles to skim the waves. They smack the water as they free-fall out of their aerial acrobatics back into their liquid world. There is no choreography to their dance, each fish is performing its own solo. And yet, there is an odd staccato rhythm, set to the pulse of a saline beat.

The dance starts, as most dances do, when the sun hovers over the horizon. The light changes on the ocean, going from shiny gold to burnished copper, antique rose and tarnished silver. As the sky blushes a furious crimson, the “boiling” of the sea begins in earnest.

Suddenly, a much larger splash is heard, like timpani drums over the trilling piscine piccolo. The bigger fish have come out to feed, and in their hunt for dinner, leap out of the water to chase their fleeing prey.

We hurry down to the beach, navigating our way carefully on the stony shingles that cover the shore. We cast our lures out into the water and reel them in. Over and over we do this, mimicking the minnows’ mad dash to straddle air and water.

We are fishing for striped bass.

This is a very different kind of fishing for me. Growing up, we used bamboo poles and frozen squid. Simple and elementary, not a reel in sight. We didn’t cast our lines repeatedly. We made our way to the edge of a deep tide pool at sunrise or sunset, searched out a promising hidey-hole and plopped our bait in front of it. And then we waited.

Sometimes it was a few minutes, sometimes longer. Most often we hooked opapalu, but on the odd memorable occasion, a sea cucumber would fall for our charms.

The fishing was good. In an hour or two, we could catch more than enough for dinner. It was easy and peaceful.

Not so with the hunt for striped bass. Cast, cast and cast again is how you do it. And after three nights of faithful casting, we came up empty-handed.

Faithless bass.

But before you think it was a miserable time, let me put you to rights.

It was calm and soothing, barring the neighbor’s wild Saturday night party way down the point, complete with band doing covers of Uptown Funk. Sure, a few illicit fireworks from around the bay to celebrate the end of summer may have been a bit jarring, but also magically beautiful to see reflected in the mirrored water.

The ocean itself was inviting, and oddly enough, got warmer as I waded knee-deep in to free my lure and hook from the protruding rock that was determined to become my next pet. The minnows darted around my legs, oblivious to my teetering on uneven purchase as I tried not to fall in and become the Summer Story of 2017, the one that family would rehash at every holiday.

My fishing companions were within talking distance, and yet, we kept to comfortable silence, taking shelter in the dark night and under the red sliver of the setting moon. The air was silken, salty and delicious against my skin and my nerves.

We lost ourselves in time, thinking only a few minutes had passed by. But in truth, we returned to a dark house every night.

A good pour of bourbon soothed the regret of the “one that got away”, as we toasted the stripers for evading us for another day. We watched the lighthouse guard the fish as it winked at us every six seconds. We sipped in the good spirits.

One last pass over the water with the flashlight revealed the minnows still jumping and leaping, their silvery scales reflecting the yellow beam like tiny frenetic disco balls. A few crickets practiced the cello in the background. A family of raccoons stared back at us with laser eyes.

We said goodnight to the wildlife around us waiting patiently for us to leave them to their nocturnal recital. The fish swam off, laughing, as the lighthouse cheerfully blinked goodbye to us.

The Equalizer

A simple question to Taghreed: why does eggplant feature so prominently in Iraqi cuisine?

Other Iraqis have told me that the eggplant has a somewhat humble status in their food world, and is a staple of those who can’t afford meat.

I want to hear another point of view, see if indeed this is the case for this photogenic but often ignored vegetable.

“True”, replies Taghreed.

For lower income people, eggplant was the mainstay of meals. Often simply fried, then served between bread with tomato and basil, it was the substitute for meat.

“It was always a delicious and beloved vegetable”, a minor player unless you couldn’t buy meat, she added. But the humble eggplant achieved superhero status in the nineties.

With the economic sanctions imposed on Iraq, food became scarce and meat prohibitively expensive. Food imports trickled to a halt, and suddenly all those old family recipes for eggplant moved to the center stage.

I sit there, listening to her tell me about the eggplant dishes of Iraq. It is incongruous, that she is relating to me true anecdotes about how people half a world away from me found a way to make do, as I sip my cappuccino with a perfect head of foam.

It’s not just any cappuccino. This IS Seattle, after all.

I had a choice between medium or dark roasted beans, whole milk, skim milk, soy milk and almond milk. I designed it to fit my tastes exactly.

In this shop, there are a dozen different flavors of macarons to tempt the palate. The cakes in the case wink and wave as I gaze at each one longingly. The croissants look so delicate, like a mere glance at them will cause them to shatter. Everything beckons, tempts and whispers buttery seduction.

Waves of people queue up and leave, constantly swirling around us, enviously eyeing our table where we are camped. There are bevies of giggling co-eds, dressed up to be seen on a Sunday morning. Mothers in yoga pants and fathers in cargo shorts juggle children, beverages and their precious pastry loot as they wheel oversized strollers against the steady stream of humanity trying to make their way into the shop. An occasional guy in biking gear clip clops in with that curious gait biking shoes cause. Everyone is here for pastries and coffee. No one is thinking about eggplants, much less economic hardships two decades ago in a faraway land.

And yet, all I can think about is a whole nation surviving on eggplants. It is a stark contrast to my present surroundings. I am hearing first-hand about how our government sanctions have, and are affecting real people.

I remember the day the troops started mobilizing and shipping out back in the nineties. I was living in Atlanta, Georgia at the time. It was a normal errand day for me, you know, picking up groceries, dry cleaning and the like. Except for the long convoys of military trucks lumbering down the interstate. And the groups and clumps of people on the overpasses and sidewalks, waving the American flag and shouting out how proud they are, and God Bless.

It was still impersonal. I had no one in my close circle in the armed forces. The nearest I got to any soldiers heading out was when they were on flights I was working. I couldn’t and didn’t visualize what it must be like on other side to see America’s military coming at you; for me, it was just “would you care for a beverage?” and “thank you for flying Delta!”

Now there is a face to that nation of people our government declared the enemy, and she has a name. Suddenly, it IS personal, as close as Taghreed is from me, a mere two feet away.

I feel embarrassed, and ashamed. I feel bloated and spoiled and ignorant. I am humbled and in awe. Around me is the detritus of nothing more harmful than a few shards of croissant crumbs. I sit in safety, cosseted by the excess we consider necessary in our world as I listen to stories of survival during war

Taghreed tells me how the eggplant, a background singer in the all-star line-up of vegetables here, has become the “pan monster” and “hero” of the Iraqi diet. It is the understudy that finally gets its big break. It rescues the show and saves the day. It keeps Iraqi families fed and going.

The contrast between life here and life there is stark, loud and brutal.

When a nation paid for the sins of its leaders, a plebeian vegetable underdog filled the void, and their bellies.

Rich or poor, they ate eggplant. It was the Equalizer.