Your Hibiscus-Infused Life

So, Bonkers Lady, you’re thinking, what does this Spanish chef have to do with me sitting here with my kids who are rubbing play dough into the carpeting, and the dog who is shedding a storm, and the lost soccer shoes, and the tax extension — much less the novel that’s not getting written?

I’ve been toting around this GIANT book for more than two weeks and really must get it back to the library. But I love dipping into it here and there. I love the ideas it sparks. The book is A Day at elBulli: An nsight into the ideas, methods and creativity of Ferran Adria, and it is amazing in every sense. First there is the size – larger and heavier than most hardbound dictionaries, it weighs in at 7 lbs. I’m a book nut, so I’m also really into how it’s put together. There are lovely photographs–over 1,000 of them– on every page, but most intriguing are the inserts on very plain paper that provide the nuts & bolt information, e.g., “The stages of developing a dish,” or “The electronic wine list.” (Why an electronic wine list, you ask, because elBulli has a 1,666 different wines available.) How Amazon is selling this tome for $32.97 is a mystery.


Let me back up. elBulli is widely considered to be the best restaurant in the world. Located on a secluded bay, several hours from Barcelona, it is open six months a year. It serves a 30-course meal to 8,000 people a year – 50 a night – though as many as 2 million people try to make reservations a year. Owner-chef Ferran Adria has introduced new methods of cooking and combinations never seen before, most of which are invented during the six months when the restaurant is not opened but the staff plays and concocts.

“A creative person tries to do what they don’t know how to do,” Adria says. Not surprisingly, this chef who owes is reputation to thinking outside the traditional confines of great cuisine has a series of methods for creativity. The result has been such offerings as an edible “paper” infused with hibiscus, blackcurrant and eucalyptus; lemon tempura with licorice; or pisatchios coated in their own praline and submerged in liquid nitrogen; or homemade marshamallows coated in a grated hard goat’s cheese.

The heart of Adria’s creative process has six components:
1) association – make lists of ingredients, cooking methods and finished dishes and think of new ways of putting them together.
2) inspiration – take a reference from any field, e.g., painting, music, as a starting point and then emulate it in cooking, trying to capture the spirit or form of the original starting point in the dish.
3) adaptation – take an existing dish, such as an icon of French cooking, and remake it. elBulli chefs enjoy, especially, adapting the unlikely, such as turning a dessert into a main course, or vice versa.
4) deconstruction – if, like me, you encountered this term in school, you may be squirming, but hear it out; it is basically an extension of adaptation. Something that’s adapted is still recognizable and is a sort of wink and nod joke. But something that’s been deconstructed is in an entirely new form — appearance, form, texture are all different, though the essence is the same. At its best, deconstruction accentuates the original and helps one to understand it afresh.
5) minimalism – use the minimum number of ingredients to achieve the greatest effect.
6) changes in menu structure – elBulli plays with how menus are organized, something that rarely changes in Western restaurants. In fact, there’s no menu, per se; guests only receive a menu after the meal as a token. But the order of food is different, and includes entirely new courses, such as one called “morphings.”
7) search for new ingredients – viewing ingredients as the “genes” for the dishes, it’s vital to find new sources and products from around the world, including kinds of charcoal and oils.


So, Bonkers Lady, you’re thinking, what does this have to do with me sitting here with my kids who are rubbing play dough into the carpeting and the shedding dog and the tax extension and the novel that’s not getting done? Ok, none of us is going to have 2 million requests for our work this year (though, if you start counting, you may find that someone hollers “mooooommmm!” 2 million times), nor are we lucky enough to have have a secret workshop like Chef Adria (or Santa). But he’s presented a great baseline of rules for creativity, worthy of sticking on a bulletin board. I think I could take any of these and imagine the writerly equivalent and get myself out of the blahs.

Second point is that getting a honking big book, or a huge stack of new music, or a new piece of art — something outside your usual milieu but something that’s new and shows the work of someone who is really groundbreaking – can do wonders for your work. I often find that as a writer it’s really daunting to read a work that strikes me as excellent. When I first read Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius I didn’t want to write for months. It was so good. How could I do anything half that good?

But when I checked out a giant book of Anselm Kiefer’s work or watched the film American Splendor, about the work and life of cartoonist Harvey Pekar, I was inspired. These products from artists in different realms helped me to see  my own creative projects beyond the play dough and the seeming limitations of my beautiful but sometimes little mama life. They helped me to DREAM BIG.

So get thee to the library. Borrow music from a friend. Turn your head sideways and squint while wearing your kid’s rose-colored glasses. Whatever it takes to get a new take on the same ol’, same ol’. Think of it as spring cleaning for your creative spirit!


Inside my mind: Of genius and couscous and steam shovels

In order for the sprite to find you, you have to show up

The next few posts are proof that creativity comes from everywhere and that for me, it usually ties back to mothering – or vice versa. From my bulletin board: an old magazine article about children’s book author Virginia Lee Burton. From several friends, reminders about a TED talk by Elizabeth Gilbert that I needed to watch. And from my public library, the largest book I’ve ever checked out: A Day at El Bulli. All of these have been roiling around in me for the past week, doing that cool thing where one Idea sloshes over the other and recedes, like a wave pushing back the sand to expose a series of lovely little shells that weren’t there before. And eventually, each thing, from the world’s most exclusive restaurant to the thoughts of a best-selling memoirist or the legacy of the woman who brought us Mike Mulligan, becomes brighter and more worthwhile to me.

Part of what speaks to me about these three items currently sloshing in my brain is the passion they exude. Passion is what drives us to create, of course. It’s what has been getting my friend Eve out of bed at 5:00 AM all week for our 24-week assignment. It’s what has me here right now when I should be tallying phone bills for my taxes or sending out queries. (Ok, avoidance can do wonders, too.) My experience is that many people with “day jobs” are envious of artists because of our passion. It’s easy to forget the less swell parts of passion, like the unknown payment plan or the lack of benefits. The urge to feel that electric liveness is what appeals. Whenever I talk to my oldest friend who works as a project manager for a pharmaceutical company, a job she’s clearly excelled at over the years, she’s always in awe of what she dubs “my calling.” You are so lucky to know what  you want to do! she exclaims, as though she doesn’t. (And I don’t know what I want to do; I don’t feel I have much choice, actually. But that’s another matter altogether.)   Continue reading “Inside my mind: Of genius and couscous and steam shovels”


mothers mothers everywhere

“I can’t have this in my house any longer,” she tells the gentle shopkeeper who has befriended her. “It makes me forget I’m a mother.” 

I’ve been in New York all week meeting with people about projects – a book, prospective books, an exhibit. My kids are in DC with their grandparents, which has been a great break for us all:  the circus and aquarium for them; long dinners with friends and walking fifteen-block stretches without anyone whining for me. I’m filled up, saturated with food and conversation. Ready again for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, for bath time, and even homework.

Tonight, coming home from dinner in Chinatown, a mom and her pre-teen daughter sat across from me on the subway leafing through a brochure from Madame Tussaud’s, which I assume they’d visited. They were such a gentle pair. When the daughter put her head on her mother’s shoulder, I had a sudden ping for Bella. I looked at the mom and gave her a smile that said – at least I meant it to – isn’t it the best thing in the world to be a mother?

Today was spent with friends – one pregnant, one considering children, one trying but with a recent sad setback. All of them artists with artist husbands. All of them a trifle worried about how babies will fit into their lives. You’ll do it, I told them, sometimes aloud, sometimes to myself.  It will be hard at times, sleepy and blurry, but you’ll do it. 

Last night, I laid awake listening to baby Matilda, the daughter of the two gay men who live above my friend’s apartment. I’m not sure what was bothering the 13-month old, but her yowls were so fierce that she was nearly hyperventilating with misery. “What is wrong with her?” my friend, a non-parent asked. “She’s ok,” I said and slept just fine through it, almost comforted by the ruckus.

Babies. Children. Parents. Everywhere.

And yet another mother and another child:  Last night at the movies – a beautiful Swedish movie called Everlasting Moments about a Swedish woman in the early 1900s, a wife and mother of seven (can you imagine?) who begins to take photographs. When her toddler son accidentally breaks a glass plate, she slaps him and then, horrified at herself, returns to the camera to the store. “I can’t have this in my house any longer,” she tells the gentle shopkeeper who has befriended her. “It makes me forget I’m a mother.” He pours  her a glass of Madeira and tells her that she has a gift. “Not everyone is endowed with the gift of seeing,” he says. In other words, once your eyes are opened, there is no returning.

So often I am reminded of this about my writing – it’s in me, like it or not. I can’t give it up. Like a limb. But we forget sometimes that the same is true, just as ecstatically and wildly, of our motherhood.

As I whirred around the city talking about projects, a creative tornado, I remained totally captivated by the quiet scenes about motherhood played out in the film, or by the woman and daughter riding sleepily home on the train. I could never go back. I am an artist, but as this trip has reminded me again and again and again, in the subtlest of ways, I am just as wonderfully a mother.


Inspiration: Finding it between the pages


Once I realized that no map would appear, I pulled a paragraph of experience here and a sentence there, compiling it all until I had some vague semblance of a “how-to.”


When I had my daughter seven years ago, I was so in love with her and being a mother that I hardly noticed how hard it was to write. Two years later, when my son was born and I was dealing with an infant who didn’t like to sleep, as well as a toddler who’d just found her feet, I went searching for road maps. How did women do it? I didn’t want to think about Sylvia Plath, even though there were many days when I could too easily empathize. I wanted, instead, a role model.

I quickly discovered Tillie Olsen’s Silences, an angry book that is as apt today as it was in 1965 when it was published. Olsen was angry for the women’s voices that had been silenced due to the difficulty of raising kids while making art. “Work interrupted, deferred, relinquished,” she wrote, “makes blockage—at best, lesser accomplishment. Unused capacities atrophy, cease to be.”

Tillie Olsen
Tillie Olsen


While I appreciated Olsen’s ire and underlined passages in with deep red lines, I still needed something more akin to a happy ending to get me through the days (or as one woman in the grocery store put it, “The days go by fast, but there can be some very long moments.”) The combination of kids and art, I found, takes will, a huge desire—a need, really—to create, and patience. Serendipity helps, too.

During a lecture, I asked the writer Marilynne Robinson how she’d completed her first novel, Housekeeping, at a time when her sons were small. She responded with a languorous smile, which said in itself: I was so lucky. She’d been on sabbatical in France for a year when the university went on strike, but she still got paid. The children were in school from early in the morning until nearly dinner. With her days relatively empty, she began assembling scraps of ideas that she’d been jotting down for months and forming them into a novel. An amazing novel.

France. Work strike. Paychecks. Sounded good to me. But I didn’t see that equation on my horizon.
What else worked?

Since becoming a mother seven years ago, I’ve slowly accumulated a collection of models, pulling ideas from different people and unexpected sources. Once I realized that no map would appear, I pulled a paragraph of experience here and a sentence there, compiling it all until I had some vague semblance of a “how-to.”

images1For example, Chef Alice Waters’ children’s book, Fanny at Chez Panisse, told from the perspective of her young daughter who’d grown up in her mother’s restaurant, provided a glimpse of how the talented and driven Waters had combined child rearing with her passion for food. There’s baby Fanny in an empty soup pot, which doubles as a playpen, or an older Fanny picking herbs at a friends’ garden for the evening’s meal.

Actress Alfre Woodard, speaking in the documentary Searching for Debra Winger, teaches a lesson about priorities. When her son was still a baby, she was offered a role in a movie that was filming in South Africa. Could she leave him? She agonized over the decision, until she realized that her son would not only be well taken care of by her parents, but that he would never remember the time apart, while she would gain exceptional experience. A mother’s needs, even creative ones, can and should sometimes come first. I watched that film late one night when I was paining over the decision of whether to put my kids in daycare; if offered an invaluable lesson.  

I’ve also found considerable wisdom from less well-known women, much of which has arrived via serendipitous encounters. During a casual talk at the pool, I learned that an older woman I saw there often was a poet. When I complained, I’m embarrassed to admit, that I’d given up my study to make room for my daughter’s nursery, she laughed. “Oh, I know hard that is. I had four kids in a Quonset hut behind Kinnick,” she said, referring to the tin can shacks that the university put up behind the local football stadium after World War II to house the glut of young families on campus. “My desk was my ironing board!” I was incredulous, but she just seemed amused. I wondered how amused she’d felt about it back in 1950.

Quonset hut, circa 1950
Quonset hut, circa 1950


I also connected by chance with a landscape architect who I was interviewing. She sent me before and after photographs of her Northern California yard. The first set, taken more than a decade ago, showed her young children half naked climbing a mound of dirt in the midst of a weedy lawn strewn with stacks of lumber and rocks. It looked like fun, but also like utter chaos. The after shot, taken recently from roughly the same vantage point, could have come from the gardening section of House Beautiful. When I asked how she’d done it, she wrote back: “Slowly. I mainly kept thinking, ‘If I only had time!’ I never did, but little by little it got done.”

When I told her that I was writing a book with a newborn and a toddler under the roof, she wrote me back quickly, as though her message was urgent. And it was. She sensed rightly that few other people were imparting this hard-won lesson: “You are in the tough phase. The hardest part is focusing. If you’re trying to write, you’re fractured. It feels like constant spinning and you are sure that if you could just stop long enough to focus, you could get something done. You feel like you are procrastinating, but really you are choosing the most important things to do and letting the others wait.”

I taped her words above my desk. They’re still there.

Some of you, in conversation and online, have shared your own inspirations – those stories, books, film clips and other moments that keep you going. Here are a few. Treat yourself, perhaps, as a holiday gift? And add more below in the comments. 

The List

Watching art being made is always good for the soul. One painter, said she loved an interview with painter Elizabeth Murray, who describes working with her kids running around, from the PBS series 21/Art.

Life Among the Savages, in which the author of the universal 7th grade horror read, “The Lottery,” Shirley Jackson, gives a surprisingly sunny report of writing stories whilst pushing prams and wiping faces.

Lewis Hyde, author of The Gift: Creativity and The Artist in the Modern World, was recently featured in the New York Times Magazine. His works is always worth revisiting.

It never hurts to remember the most inspirational moment of all:  birth. Hence several books on the subject, Baby Catcher: Chronicles of a Modern Midwife, and Spiritual Miwifery.

I met Maira Kalman a few years back while working on Drawing from Life, and she’s as wonderful and kind and without pretense as you would hope. Her blog-turned-book, The Principles of Uncertainty is a good reminder that seeing the small things, even when life is bursting, will help you retain your creative genes.

And check out Lynda Barry’s newest, What It Is, a guide to helping you see that the ordinary always holds the extraordinary.


Creativity in a Dustbin

Tonight I watched a creative genius at play. And I was humbled.


Over the summer, I’ve been writing a book proposal about motherhood and creativity. Most of my focus has been on women who are creative in the arts—writers, songwriters, dancers, and the like. I’ve included the occasional chef or body worker and paid homage to the ways in which we express ourselves less professionally, such as in journals or gardening. Though I know that creativity is a vein that runs through the best-run businesses, schools and nonprofits, I’ve shied away from focusing on these arenas. “They have so many of their own books,” I think, seeing heavily weighted shelves in the business section of the bookstore, “We have so few.”

What I haven’t sufficiently explored, however, are the creative gifts that women bring to motherhood and, dare I say it, domesticity. Partly, this is for lack of language to talk about domestic work in a way that is interesting, much less inspiring. Women’s work has been degraded and so has the language and images that surround it.

Multi-tasking is probably the most heralded of women’s domestic skills. Sarah Palin appears to be the wunderkind of this: A baby on one hip as she schnoodles the snow mobile dude, reels in a fish and signs a bill. It reminds me of a story I once heard Cokie Roberts tell on NPR about her mother, a former Republican Congresswoman, who was watching over a house full of kids while canning pickles and talking to the Senate Majority leader on the phone about an upcoming vote. No matter what your politics, you’ve got to admit, we are sort of incredible compared with our tunnel vision, one-thing-only-and-take-your-time brethren. Continue reading “Creativity in a Dustbin”