Of Everyday Formality: A Table Teaches Me a Thing or Two about Life

Catch-all.

Writer’s desk.

Life-size vision board.

Supper-seater for eight.

I’m talking about our dining room table.

But I’m getting ahead of myself…

When Hubs and I first got married, we moved to a tiny apartment in Queens. In that home, we built the beginnings of our life together around a drop-leaf table that once belonged to my great grandfather, then my grandfather, then my mother, and now me (us). It’s not that we’re sentimental, though this is also true. It’s more that one of us (me) is Southern, and my breed of Southern abhors throwaway culture of any and all kinds.

When Mom offered the table to us — something that must have been hard for her on many levels — doing anything else besides graciously accepting it was out of the question. And some years later, when we relocated to our suburban abode, welcoming it into our next phase of life was simply assumed. It’s now sitting pretty (and better protected) in another space. One day I hope we have the occasion to pass it down anew, making this table a five-generation veteran of life. What a treasure.

That said, relocating our treasure left us in need of what I’d then considered the bastion of all “made it” purchases: a formal table for our formal dining room. This may come as a surprise to those who know me. Generally speaking, my tastes lean more modern and minimalist. But — see above — I’m also Southern. And Good Southern Girls have dining tables, formal or not. So, the very minute we could afford to purchase one, we did. Afford of course being relative because HOLY STICKER SHOCK.

If we didn’t love the table, we mightn’t’ve bought it… but we did, so we did. Since then, it’s been the setting for large holiday gatherings, work-night dinner dates, a conversation spot, a landing zone, and a desk before I had another. Lately, its uses have only expanded. Drafting table, social-distancer, reading spot, craft area, and dog den are only a few. If anything, being routinely quarantined at home has made me appreciate the everyday formality of our space and this investment. And I’m here for it.

We’re living in (through?) an age where, I imagine, more folks will start to have realizations like this. Perhaps not about their dining rooms, but about some other thing or idea or person or place that, prior to this mess, they failed to fully embrace. For me it’s the table, but also the idea of tradition, of heritage, of ways of life that, while changed, are learning to survive forward. And is that so bad? I think not.

Then again, my great grandpa could have told me that. Also my grandpa. Also my mom. I know this because they already have. They have through sharing that drop-leaf table we’ve come to cherish, even though these days we dine on something else. Turns out furniture really does reflect more than generational design tastes (she says as someone formerly of the decorative arts museum world who should’ve known better).

For those of us willing to receive it, there’s a lesson here about how we choose to structure our lives — or, perhaps stated a little differently, what and whom we choose to build ourselves around. When we make any kind of decision, whether we like it or not, we’re communicating a lot about who we are, what we value, what we stand for, and what we hope to see in the future. And that goes for interior design of both the house and soul varieties… and then of course, everything in between.

I don’t know about you, but as for me, I hope the message I’m communicating is one that sounds like: Here, take something of me with you, so that you’ll never forget what it is to be home out in the world, and what it is to be out in the world, right here at home. It’s the lesson of the table, of my family, of our ever-changing reality. What we build should be designed to last, sure; but it should also be given ample space to grow and change. I wonder what would happen if more of us lived this way — and not just for ourselves.

HOME-ISH: Rebuilding a Time-Honored Concept for the Modern Age

Some years ago, I looked into the blank-eyed stare of someone who had no idea what they were doing. I don’t just mean relative to the action they were about to take. I also mean how they were functioning in the interim, uncomfortable moments of change between what’s-now and what’s-next, which is to say, how they were adjusting to an idea they had supposedly undertaken with great confidence.

In fairness, it is quite impossible to know how your life will change when you leave home for the first time. Even after you leave, and have been away awhile, you still don’t really know. It takes a long, long, long time to understand. And even then, as anyone who has been away longer will tell you, you still haven’t got it except for maybe by a thread. And even that grip is tenuous.

This is a lesson we are all learning now, in a time of immense cultural, political, and yes, also necessarily personal change. We must address them — all of them — and we must do so closer to us, not further away, at least not at first. There is no more room or time for work-avoiding beliefs that look, sound, and act like any of the following: “If there’s a problem, it is over there,” or “If there is a failing, it must be someone else’s,” or “If there is a grievance, surely another individual will make it right.” Each of these statements, though perhaps momentarily pacifying, are not in anyone’s long-term interest, so we shouldn’t tolerate them in the short-term.

It should be noted that this is not the same thing as acknowledging shared plights or shared sins. If anything, right now we are called to acknowledge the great expanse of things long-overdue for our attention. But we cannot do this — or, we cannot do this well — if we are unwilling to acknowledge our roles in the care and keeping of that great expanse.

At first, this might make you feel alienated. The current political and cultural climate has unsettled many time-honored ideas in favor of reimagining a way forward that is more inclusive, and this is something we should celebrate. However, it is alright if, for a moment or fifty, you need to grieve what it is you had no idea you were losing until it was lost. This is especially true if you’re the type of person who usually notices the fabric of your life in distress only after overt, theatrical rips at the seams, instead of, say, small threadbare corners that become larger and larger over hours, and days, and weeks, and months and OH MY GOD HOW THE HELL DID WE GET HERE? It’s okay. Sometimes that’s me, too.

Even for seasoned folks, life can be overwhelming. We all struggle, we all fall down, we all have moments where we’re overcome with exhaustion, where we’re running on fumes. We’re all human. That is to be expected. And! We must still choose to stay committed, honoring our selves by first getting to know ourselves — yes, so that we know what we have to give, but also yes, so we know what we have to lose.

When I’ve said in The LibraRYAN Reading Group posts that you shouldn’t rely on my response to get started on your part of the assignments we’ve all been handed (many times, not just recently), I’ve meant it. Me sharing this context is in support of that statement, not in argument with it. Especially because I want to leave enough space for folks who are striving towards being better in new ways. In lots of places, I see messaging that essentially says “sink or swim,” and I don’t know about you, but that ideology is part of what got us here, no? As a result, I won’t be operating by or with it. Good, glad we cleared that up.

I am in the business of sharing things I’ve learned along my journey, in case they might be of service to anyone else. Therefore, with the seriously immense disclaimer that I am not an expert in anything, that I am a relative nobody, and that just like you, I have, do, and will get life very wrong on more than one occasion, here is one take on a starting place, from someone who gives a $#@^ about you — yes really, you the person, not you in general. That’s the entire point.

How to Plan a Stronger Home in Five Steps (and then a lot more):

(1) Accept responsibility for the fact that you, personally, are responsible for the marks you leave on yourself, on others, on your homes, on others’ homes, and on the world.

(2) After you fight me (yourself!) on that, seriously, accept responsibility for the things that happen (and have happened) on your watch, under your leadership, and in your presence or company. This is a lesson we learn in early years and then conveniently forget while in pursuit of whatever lofty goals we acquire “on our ways home.”

(3) Still struggling? It’s ok. Another way to look at this is to look back at your past (start more recently, then work backwards). See if you can find an example of something you’ve done, willfully or not, to fundamentally harm someone. If you can’t find an example, look closer and/or go back further. Then keep going. Finding more than one example certainly won’t get you a sticker, but you might learn something, and that should be enough.

(4) Ah! Now you’ve got the hang of it! It’s going to get a little harder, though. Are you ready? Once you’ve located those memories, sit with them for a minute. Think not just about how they changed the other person/s, but also how they fundamentally changed you (and they did, I promise).

(5) Now, here’s where the Big Work starts. While I regret to inform you that you cannot go back and un-do whatever nastiness you discovered, you can absolutely move forward in a new spirit of just-as-broken-as-the-rest-of-us-ness, and resolve to do better each and every “Next Time” you’re gifted (none of us ever deserve second chances, but we get them, and what we do with them matters).

Again, this is only your starting place. My hope is that you’ll start from a place that is open to the kinds of work that need to be done, and that when you make mistakes, you know you can come back to this home base and rest, re-learn, and get going again.

In the meantime, know that if it takes you longer than others to get through these steps, that’s ok. If it takes you less time and then you need to go back and re-take this course of action, that’s ok. Falling down, messing up, taking your time, these are all ok. The most important thing to remember is that we have a million moments to do the right thing, and in as many of those moments as possible, we should.

P.S. I’ve written about the concept of “home” many times, but here are a few that might resonate in new ways. I’d love to hear how your thoughts on “home” have evolved over the years, too!

Home

Hiraeth: A Movement in Three Household Things

Sometimes I Feel Like Celia Foote

In the Middle with You

We’re All a Little North by North Carolinian

Reading Words: Last Ride to Graceland

Reading Words: TIME’s Special Issue on the American South

Design in the Age of “For Now, Forever”

It’s no secret that this isn’t a buyer’s market. As a result, you might be considering staying put for awhile. We certainly are. Why? Because as much as hot seller’s markets help maximize profits, they can also put homes you were previously eyeing just out of reach. This is before you address monthly costs that will never go away, no matter the market or your personal finances. Diamonds might be forever, but so are taxes and utilities. Remember that.

Don’t get me wrong. We love our current home, so the momentary decision to stay isn’t “settling,” and it’s also not taken without deep awareness of other, favorable alternatives. Hubs and I are ultimately pragmatists who’ve learned not to get too attached to anyone or anything else around us — and with good reason. It’s simple: the most powerful levers in anyone’s life, jobs and real estate, are finicky as heck, and no one has the control they’d like to believe they have over either of them.

The good news is that even in this reality, we do have some power over what happens. By this I mean that if we make the right choices, we can protect the future kinds of decisions we’ll make, no matter what circumstances surround us.

Relative to building a life in the places we call home, this means we can decide to love things… for now. We can decide to fix things… for now. We can decide to stay… for now. And if things change, however suddenly, we can decide to leave… you guessed it, for now. The strict dichotomy of “love it” or “list it” just isn’t fair or true. Someone better tell HGTV.

Which brings us back to the current market. What’s a homeowner to do — about homes, about life — in a wildly unpredictable time like this? Well, the honest answer is that I have absolutely no idea, but here’s one possiblity: strike a delicate balance between what strikes your fancy, and what might strike the fancy of the most number of others.

Yes, that’s as difficult as it sounds. Luckily, purchasing and living through the renovations of a charming suburban fixer has prepared us well for this way of life. It’s been a humbling, but ultimately love-filled experience. We do something, we take stock, we do something else, we take stock again. Nothing is forever, but everything could be. The reality of our “for now, forever” life is that we are both tethered and free, both kept and wild, both at home and away. It’s strife and success all wrapped up in one. And we love it.

Meanwhile, if you’re looking for ways to apply this strangely freeing mindset to your life or abode, here are some “current” ideas I’ve long-since loved, being someone who grew up in a place where these things are less often branded as “new and fashionable,” and more often beloved as “tried and true:”

(1) Color! More “traditional” colors, like greens (my favorite, favorite, favorite), yellows, blues, terra cottas, deep charcoals, and wispy creams are shoving “greige” out where it belongs, which is to say, in the fashion rearview. From pastels to super-saturated and more stately or refined, colors of all kinds are making a serious comeback and I! am! here! for! it!

(2) Texture! Ok, so I’d be lying if I said that my more minimalist self didn’t love part of the industrialist look that was oh-so au courant through the mid-late 2010’s. But it would never cut it as a lasting and intentional design aesthetic, at least not for me. Instead, give me all the textured carpets, textured window coverings, textured seating options! They demonstrate there’s more to life than stark urbanity, as defined by bare white walls, exposed beams and A/C ducts, and “dimensional wall art,” whatever that was…

(3) Nature! I’ve always been someone who’s wanted to bring the outdoors, in. As a child I preferred to play outside over anywhere else, and I try hard to honor the spirit of that girl as much as possible in my adult life. One of the ways I do this is by keeping little moments of nature tucked in surprising places, which is a technique that’s worked wonders everywhere from my first studio apartment to our current suburban sprawl. Give it a try!

Alright, those are my top three design picks for the age of “for now, forever.” Beyond the specificity of those choices, what makes me most excited about changing public tastes is the return to what I’ll call “natural joy.” Sure, I mean to the world of design, but I also mean to the world at-large. We’ve whitewashed, stripped, and quieted too many things in the name of “style” over the years. It’s about time more of us stepped up to fix that. And guess what, you already know how. You just have to make your home for yourselves, and keep doing that for as long as you want. After all, at least for now, it’s yours and no one else’s.

Welcome home, My Loves. For now and forever, welcome home.

July 2020 LibraRYAN Reading Group Pick/s

Friends,

It’s good to see you here again.

Thank you for honoring our break for the month of June 2020. I hope you were able to use it in ways that support a world that is truly just. And, in the process, I hope you haven’t fallen into the trap of thinking your efforts must be the same as someone/everyone else’s.

On the contrary! Use your gifts and talents in the unique ways they were intended, but in order to do this, you must first learn yourself (get to know yourself on an uncomfortably real level). In support, I’d like to suggest some reads for the month of July 2020. Permit me a brief introduction?

More than a decade ago, I found myself in New Orleans for the summer (TL/DR, see here). Long story short, not unlike my choice to attend school in the Bronx, I went under the impression that I’d be able to do my best, most meaningful work somewhere other than where I was from. And even longer story short, I was proven wrong. So wrong it’s embarrassing.

The overwhelming lesson I took from my time in NOLA was that, actually, the most any of us can hope to do is affect good, decent change closest to where we are from, our homes. That lesson changed my life. I’m still learning how best to apply it, but a substantial amount of my resultant growth comes from accepting with grace that the work is never over. By this I mean that there is no “ok, we’re good now” moment, and as such, there can be no real “best way.” We’re all just doing our best on the way to something better. Or at least, I hope we are.

Maybe you read that and thought, “duh, Ryan.” But folks, how many of you have sought to do the work in YOUR homes, the places YOU’RE closest to, the places where there’s so much at stake that it hurts YOUR heart, the places where maybe YOU don’t even realize how much is at stake until YOU get going? And if you’ve started this work, how many of you have allowed YOURSELF the grace to stumble, fall down, make terrible and horrible mistakes, to acknowledge that you can’t solve this on your own, to be human after all?

Yeah, I know. But guess what? I’m standing here, broken and failing, right alongside you. Here’s what we can do to be better, though. Every time we let fear start to lead us down a path we mightn’t ought take, let’s try to remember something:

It’s so. very. easy. to finger-point at other people getting it wrong in other places. It’s a lot harder to look in the mirror and acknowledge your own culpability in your own home(s), which is why so few people do it (at all, let alone consistently). Admittedly, I’ve fallen into that trap on more than one occasion, so again, join the club.

It’s also shockingly easy to understand this all intellectually but then struggle to understand how to put it into practice (yep, been there), or to know how to put it into practice, but to hide behind the relative security of a brand that “does the work” (quotes absolutely intentional) because you’re too scared to do what you really need to do, personally speaking (done that).

That’s all okay, or at least it’s an okay place to start or restart from. The point is that it’s possible to “know” something or “learn” something, and have no idea how the actual heck to go about doing something else about it. Just don’t let that uncertainty and fear stop you from trying (she says as a recovering fear junkie).

For me, anyway, it’s often the strongest pulls, the truest truths, that feel weightiest (more here). And if you’ve had experience with those kinds of things, you’ll know that that kind of weight generally demands two things in order to be moved: (1) tremendous strength, and (2) recognition (humility!) that this strength does not have to come solely from you.

In fact, the most weighty, painful, heart-breaking, soul-wrenching, ultimately meaningful work is often done TOGETHER and not APART, even though it must be done PERSONALLY by/for everyone involved.

To put it a little more plainly, that people, home, and community are inextricably tied is not a coincidence. Neither is it a coincidence when their inextricable bonds get challenged. We should stop behaving as if they’re just by happenstance connected, or connected only in the “-ologies” of life (stuff we’ve “distilled” through academic work).

I assure you, what we actually do in our actual lives, not as statistics or records or whatever other Ivory Tower nonsense sometimes gets thrown around, is what matters. Leave other people’s examinations of themselves to them. You’ve got enough work to do on yourself, my friend.

On that note, I’d like y’all to start by reading one or both of the following anthologies. Then, instead of looking for my discussion guide at the end of the month, please do everyone a favor and do the work to study your own homes. Find the greatest area(s) of need, find the places that hurt to acknowledge, find the faults as much as the prides and joys. Then think long and hard about how you have PERSONALLY contributed to those things — and how YOU might use whatever superpowers YOU have to address them CONSTRUCTIVELY.

That, my friends, is the work that we all need to be doing. And for the record, it’s the work we’ve needed to do all along. But first, let’s learn to listen:

All the Women in My Family Sing: Women Write the World — Essays on Equality, Justice, and Freedom (2018, Nothing but the Truth Publishing, LLC, ed. Deborah Santana).

and/or

This is the Place: Women Writing about Home (2017, Seal Press/Hachette Book Group, eds. Margot Kahn and Kelly McMasters).

Welcome to the Good Fight, y’all.

P.S. Itching for some fiction partner reads? Check out my Reading Words tab for a great place to start. You might recognize a few newly (re)popular titles in there. And if you don’t recognize the books, might I humbly suggest that you read them all the more?

P.P.S. If after reading these books you don’t get a sense for why having a female head of state would be helpful precisely in times like these, let’s talk. Because it’s time, whether or not you’re ready, and I already can’t wait for 2024. *kiss*

Holiday Preview

Every year, on or about July 1st, my youngest sister texts to let me know that it’s begun. Christmas music has entered her life via every streaming device in her possession — and sometimes, simply within her reach. Gloating immediately follows. She has beaten me to the chase in welcoming the holiday season yet again.

Yes, our season lasts six months. Yes, we are both fully grown adults. We believe that if you can’t have a little fun in life, you’re missing the point. Part of that fun is extending the holiday season. You may therefore be surprised to hear that we’re both late to the party this year. Aside from noting that Hallmark’s Countdown to Christmas starts during my birthday week (huzzah!), we’ve failed to advance much further. I count this among our greatest missed opportunities for 2018.

Meanwhile, the holiday season as observed by our saner compatriots draws closer by the day. In Manhattan, preparations have already begun — or so says Husband, who keeps tabs on these things for me now that my base of operations is Long Island. It feels strange that this season I won’t watch the windows come alive daily. In that sense, it’s like I’m in college again, when we’d wait until finals week to go see the city lit up with holiday cheer.

But waiting has always been my problem. I have a forward drive that cannot be stopped. Why, only last week I was struck with full holiday season readiness. By this I mean a strong appetite for cranberry sauce, green bean casserole, and the infamous, once-a-year Johnny Appleseed grace we kids grew accustomed to back home. By December, this will give way to an insatiable desire for three more things: a dusting of snow, an overabundance of brightly colored lights, and the scrawniest fir tree you can possibly find.

Alas, here we are. It’s the end of October and none of these things are to be found. Pounds of candy and what feels like a million door-bell-startled dog barks stand between me and the most wonderful time of the year. What gets me through? First, hiding or giving away ALL the candy that questionably-dressed children don’t gorge themselves on by Halloween. Then I’ll run, full tilt, toward all things resembling my preferred holidays. The trick is to give this behavior creative names so it seems like I’m well-mannered and definitely not an impatient winter shrew.

P.S. did we just find my Halloween costume? I think we did. Dibs!

The “holiday preview” meal that inspired this post is absolutely one of those immediately gratifying acts. I’m mentally skipping ahead one month. Who said we have to be bound by the calendar of socially acceptable celebration? Not me! Granted, we can’t go around doing whatever we want all the time, but I have noticed that creating opportunities for happiness, however small, goes a long way in life. That’s why, last week, Husband and I did the unthinkable. We prepared a seasonally inappropriate meal. Just one dish. Just one night. Just for the two of us. Just because. (And yeah, also because my holiday season has been here for quite awhile…).

Give the recipe a read — maybe it’s something to try when we’re all properly yule logging, caroling, and eggnogging the night away in a few short weeks!

The Eats Deets:

Recipe: Spiced Wine-Braised Short Ribs (slightly edited) from Midwest Living. I added a few more carrots than the recipe called for and threw in a pack of mushrooms for good measure.

Yield: Eight short ribs + the fixings.

Time: Half hour prep / three hour cook time.

Materials: Dutch oven, good knife, tongs. Also, if you can count it here, patience.

Pros: Your house will smell like the holidays, eliminating the need for potpourri. Also, it’s a one-pot meal that gets better the next day. And there’s wine. Need I say more?

Cons: This is not a dish for those short on time. I’d advise saving it for a weekend! Please also note that your neighbors may spontaneously show up when the scent of your A+ homemaking wafts down the street. This means your house should be clean before you start cooking. And yeah, go ahead and set out a couple more plates while you’re at it.

Would you make it again? Yes. I might wait until it’s a bit colder, but it’s a definite yes from us. We enjoyed this meal so much that silence descended upon our house from the time I plated dishes until the time Husband lovingly cleared the table. We are never silent during supper. It was just that good.

The Eats Story:

Sorry folks, I cheated and told the story first this time. But you get it. I look forward to the holidays. I sometimes eat seasonally inappropriate foods. I find joy in little things like sharing a meal with people I love. It’s not rocket science. But it matters.

And it matters for you, too. If not this recipe, this month, or this act of self care, then I hope you come to find and practice whatever makes you happy and whole, in the presence of others who support you. Get out there and find whatever makes your hearts and bellies full. I’d call that a win in any season.

The Eats Results:

As I await news from my sister that I’ve lost yet another holiday text competition, please enjoy these photos of our dinner — which could be your next meal in approximately 3.5 hours!

Heritage Farm & Garden

In 2016, my heart broke. The only place on Long Island where I could go to clear my head, feel at home, and know that I was ok, closed. There was no more Martin Viette and I would never be the same. When I later found out that the 42-acre sprawl was scheduled for mixed-use redevelopment, I wanted to throw up, so instead I cried, and vowed never to go back to Muttontown. I simply couldn’t stomach seeing the place I loved turned into something so wrong. If you’ve ever been to this part of Long Island, you’ll know why. If you haven’t, then I encourage you to go, so you can discover that for yourself.

Four months later, my heart broke a little differently. While the commercial plans halted (thank you, Peconic Land Trust), the memory of Martin Viette would not last long either, because another garden center opened almost immediately on this hallowed ground. Don’t get me wrong. I was glad to see the land used in the way it was intended, but I was also worried that the new place would bastardize what made its predecessor so special, that it would be commercial in other ways.

For that reason, I refused to visit Heritage Farm & Garden for almost a year. Despite my own curiosity. Despite what I knew to be beautiful land. Despite my support for local business. Despite Husband’s best efforts to convince me otherwise. I know, I am stubborn. Especially when I am hurting. But, like any other rational being, eventually I can open my mind to other ways of thinking or doing things. And I did. That’s how I found myself at Heritage nearly a year after I swore I’d never go back. That was last fall.

Truthfully, I wasn’t confident I’d made the right choice. My throat closed up and my heart pounded as we pulled up the long drive. I was looking for something, anything, that remained from what once was. I didn’t have to look far. There was the big green lawn where we’d run wild with our dog in seasons past. There was the pen for small farm animals. There was the iconic grey barn, the old truck, and the gravel parking lot across the way. It was all still there. It had different branding. It had changed. But it was there. I let a big breath out and relaxed the tension I’d been carrying around for the past year. My “home visit” was done, it would be ok, and the world would keep turning.

Another year later, elsewhere in Nassau County, I felt that old familiar ache. The air grew crisp and the leaves blazed their first gold and crimson, heralding the start of fall. This season always makes me melancholy. There are loads of emotions and memories — most of them happy, but all of which make me want to go home. Since that’s not possible of late, I longed to be near the closest thing, out in the rolling hills of Muttontown. The longing came on intensely, and as suddenly as the seasons changed, so too did my heart. I knew it was time to go back to Heritage. Not just to visit, but to be there fully, to allow myself joy in our annual pilgrimage. It meant something again.

A brief aside, if you’ll permit: names have meaning. As defined by Merriam-Webster, heritage literally means “something transmitted by or acquired from a predecessor.” That can be something literal, as in land or a dwelling or an object. It can also be something bigger and harder to contain, like a legacy. A heritage is something of importance. It is both rooted and carried forward. It is a living, breathing thing. It is not stagnant. It does not disappear, even if it changes. It is borne of us all the time.

This is the case with Heritage Farm & Garden. The history of this place — and I don’t just mean the tax parcel on which its 42 acres sit — must be preserved and respected. But it must also be allowed a new life and legacy, new memories. And actually, allowed isn’t the right word. A heritage is something to be celebrated. That’s exactly what Husband and I intended to do as we hopped in the car, dog in tow, on this sunny Saturday afternoon. We celebrated.

I’m so glad we went. This time, heart fully open, I felt joy as we drove up its gravel path. I wasn’t alone in that feeling. On our approach, Dog shot up from her back seat snooze. She knew exactly where she was. When we opened the door to let her out a few moments later, it was clearly much too late for her liking. She pulled with such force in the direction of all things good that she missed at least one critical opportunity for admiration by children who, hands and bellies full of pumpkins and cider, could only cry out “puppy!” as she jettisoned her way up the parking lot.

She never misses chances like this. That’s just the level of excitement our family embraced this afternoon. We knew, instinctively, that there would be more doting children, and parents, and employees, through the gates. We remembered, though it had been quite some time, the popcorn-dropped paths, the field-spotted farm animals, the large pots and furniture practically made for peering around, the colorful plantings and garden decor freshly curated for the season.

After endless rounds of admiration for Dog, and one small garden flag for Husband and me, we made our way to the cashier, so that we could take this little piece of home, home with us. But, too bad (wink wink), it was there where we discovered our first true surprise from Heritage Farm & Garden. We’ll let you in on the secret. Lean in … listen real good … ready?

The treats have been moved to the outdoor check-out area. Do with this information what you will, but we’re warning you now that it means your seasonal food and beverage favorites are even closer than they were before. It also means that we ultimately walked away with a flag, a decorative pumpkin, a bag of cider donuts, a half gallon of apple cider, and three very full hearts this afternoon. What can you do? Self-restraint isn’t a thing when fall favorites are around.

And I’m glad.

I’m glad there’s still a place where I can go to be at home on Long Island.

And I’m glad that place is Heritage Farm & Garden.

To many, many happy years, family.

We’ll see you soon.

***

P.S. Want to find out more about Heritage? Try their website! You’ll find all sorts of information about their shop and seasonal offerings, like Fall Festival, which runs now ’til October 28th. Or perhaps you’re searching for garden advice? They’ve got that too — head over to their blog.

For an outside perspective, the Syosset Jericho Tribune did a lovely write-up about Heritage’s continued history. Adding to this narrative, with a bit more information about the family who owns it, is an article from the Long Island Press.

Like what you see so far? Give them some love on Facebook (@heritagefng), Instagram (@heritagefarmgarden), or better yet, go visit. The staff are super friendly, and they welcome kids and pets. Yes, they actually like when you bring your dog.

Cue your grammable moment in 3…2…1….

Heritage Farm & Garden

6050 Northern Boulevard

Muttontown, NY 11732

Swyler’s “The Book of Speculation”

“It’s very easy for someone like you or me to get lost in an object, to accept certain ideas as fact without proper exploration.”

Mr. Churchwarry to Simon, p. 180

The Book of Speculation

Have you ever noticed how humans tend to seek the simplest, swiftest explanations for the situations we face? Look around — you’ll see that we all end up falling into this trap at one point or another (and probably repeatedly).

You may also notice that we have a strong urge to resist simple definition. Humans are funny creatures. We crave simplicity as we try to understand the world around us, but we go berserk the minute someone provides a simple explanation for something close or important to us.

Yeah, I fall into that trap too, and I try very hard to remain aware of it. One of the ways I do this is by finding opportunities to get out in the world. I go places, I meet people, I read books, I eat food, I work, I volunteer. In everything I do, I am here to listen, to learn, to fight against the trap. My hope is that, in the process, I expand my brain, elevate my understanding, and grow in my capacity for solidarity rather than fear. But it can be hard. Really hard. And sometimes isolating, because loads of people don’t share this view of the world.

I’d been looking for something that would help bridge the gap when I stumbled across Erika Swyler’s The Book of Speculation. Perhaps fittingly, the book was not what I expected. For those of you with interests in the circus, coastal life, book culture, or intergenerational stories, Swyler’s novel could be for you. Her storytelling — and her capacity to weave a story, within a story, within a story — is notable. But I’d like to pull back from that, and resist the urge to give you a standard book review.

What most impressed me about this particular novel was its sense of place. Swyler’s command of culture on Long Island dances off each page. She makes place a character worthy of discussion, something I see rarely in modern writing. We’ve become so introspective it hurts. Not the case here. Not by a longshot. Not if you know where to look.

At once a fine critic and a fierce advocate, Swyler shows all who are willing to see about a Long Island most will never choose to encounter — a Long Island that is at once beautiful and brutal, homey and alienating, historic and changing, rooted and disappearing. It’s the “and” in those phrases that matters. It’s the idea that a culture, a place, a person, or a thing can be more than the simple characterizations we create when we stop at speculation.

I have written here and elsewhere about those dangers. I speak from experience. As a North Carolinian living on Long Island, it makes my heart hurt when I hear individuals rail against what they think my home is, only to later hear these individuals’ plans for capitalizing on it. And, as a Long Islander by marriage and address, I’m becoming equally bothered by the reductivist views people have about this culture. Why? Because it’s one of my homes, it’s part of me, and no place is that simple, dammit. I feel obligated to love and protect it, for its own sake, as it is. It’s a force that cannot be stopped.

This story of home and obligation, of protection and love, is written all over Swyler’s pages. So if you missed it, go read her book again. It’s the undercurrent, the heart from which her novel beats. And, as with most things in life, if we resist the urge to over-simplify, to read only at the surface level, we might just see it, we might just find that it’s worth keeping. But certainly, don’t forget to enjoy the magic Swyler prepared along the way!

***

P.S. Curious about speculation, or Swyler, or both? Start here, then find another circus 😉

(1) This interview Erika did for Newsday back in 2015. I was already a fan before I read this, and now I see why. She gets it. If you’re wondering what “it” is … read the interview, or better yet, read her book.

(2) This interview she did for New In Books. Wait ’til you get to the part about whac-a-mole. Then tell me you can’t conjure a great childhood memory or two afterwards.

When Without Internet

So y’all … I spent ALL of last week without the Internet.

know, I was surprised too. Nary a day goes by where my view doesn’t resemble the featured image (a flat surface and a computer). But we’re having the house painted, which is a huge job, so there’s been no web access here.

I wasn’t sure what to do with myself for the first few days. I hate sitting still, and watching paint dry isn’t as fun as it sounds. Thankfully I got past it and ended up living a way fuller life than I normally do. During our post-net reality, some of the biggest wins became:

(1) I talked to people — with our actual voices and sometimes even in person. Did you know that it’s possible to be social outside the world of social media? Spoiler alert: it is. And it’s glorious. We’re social creatures, humans. So put down or walk away from whatever screen you’re using to engage with the world … and actually engage.

(2) I cleaned my house from top to bottom. We do a major surface scrub down every week. Last week I also did the chores we have a habit of making less time for (i.e. wiping down the space between the window and the sill, where dirt and bugs can accumulate if you aren’t careful). While I can’t make this an honest celebration of willpower, I totally plan to celebrate not doing gross chores for at least another week.

(3) I thought up a bunch of cool places to go visit on Long Island. Husband is from here but I am not. This makes us in the extreme minority of couples, at least in the part where we live. One of my goals this year is to get out and experience more by myself, so I can feel as much at home independently as I do when Husband is around. Currently on the list? A few gardens and museums, the aquarium, and finding more small/local businesses to explore.

(4) I read two books. One was a novel from a Long Island-based author. One was history-based from a North Carolina journalist. Both were spectacular and you’ll hear more about them later — stay tuned, friends. Meanwhile, I had a blast kicking off my “find more local art/ists” project with these reads!

(5) I spent time outside. Beyond daily walk(s) with the dog, or short trips to the mailbox, my time in the great outdoors has been limited of late. Part of this is the weather — raise your hand if you’re over “Spr-inter,” too!  — and part of this is me. Last week I had a good excuse to get fresh air, so guess what? I did. Must remember to make more good excuses going forward.

(6) I joined a community group. I have this nasty habit of not wanting to get close to people, because I’m never in one place long enough to properly deal with the inevitable heartbreak of leaving. It’s been over a year since we moved into this house. It’s high time I put my self(ish) preservation aside and became a contributing member of our community. I was proud of myself for this small act of courage. Let’s hope it sticks.

(7) I got my introspection on. I hate, hate, hate to think about my life. It stresses me out, either because it’s not moving fast enough, or because it’s moving too fast. So I tend to avoid introspection. Sometimes it’s helpful, though. This was one of those times. Last week I reassessed some big goals, came up with creative approaches to current and future work, re-prioritized the people and things that matter most to me, and put the rest aside for the moment. That felt really. damn. good.

In the spirit of that feeling, I encourage you to spend less screen time, and spend more time doing the things you love, with the people you love, in the places you love. Because that’s what life is all about, no matter what corner of the world you call home.

We’re All a Little North by North Carolinian

Born into a family who worked really hard to put down stable roots in North Carolina, I suppose I should have stayed there. Instead, I went to college far from home, met the New Yorker who would become my husband, and now live in a small, suburban community on Long Island.

Husband and I are very lucky. In addition to each other, we each gained a new home (and friends and family) through our union. I gained New York, he gained North Carolina, and we wouldn’t have it any other way. But this doesn’t mean life is perfect. I have to acknowledge that, from time to time, it can be hard to live as a Southerner in the elite club of generations-long Long Islanders. I miss the voices of the South, the foods, the sounds, the smells, the entire way of life — one which, through the process of assimilation, I must often hide if not outright deny in order to be taken seriously.

I have an incredibly supportive spouse. And his family and friends have been welcoming since the earliest days of our courtship, but unfortunately I cannot be around these loving souls all the time. Outside of this support system, the process of assimilation can be lonely and terrifying. In this environment, it’s hard to find other people like me, or at least other people who’re open to knowing people like me.

I started to grapple honestly with this predicament about a year ago — with trusted friends, with family, in church, at work, in other writing projects, basically everywhere the topic nagged at me. Since we carry our identities with us everywhere, and since the world around me isn’t always welcoming, that nagging happened a lot. And then it started to happen even more, and grew even stronger, to the point where I knew I had to do something about it. I knew that I could no longer hide in silence. Especially because, through earlier work and conversations, I knew I wasn’t the only person out there experiencing this struggle — and it wasn’t just happening in New York. Stories like ours are about the struggle to build a loving home, a way of life, in any place that, quite frankly, would rather we weren’t there at all.

There are several ways to build a life in these scenarios:

(1) Deny everything about yourself, and learn very quickly how to do life in a completely different way, in completely different words and meals and jobs and goals and expectations, and then prepare to find out that sometimes, even when you play by every rule, those around you won’t see past the person they want you to be.

(2) Build community with others like you, if you can find them, to celebrate and protect your heritage. Society may rail against everything about you, but you can build collective agency, and at least have others to cry or laugh with about the social experiment your lives have become.

(3) Grow an insanely thick skin and resist the actors that seek to silence you, but do this because of and through love. Love takes a helluva lot more strength than hate. But it also has the greatest capacity to affect change, so it’s worthwhile if you can master it.

Spoiler alert: I’ve tried 1 and 2 before. Both helped, but were more reactive than I’d prefer. I’m onto the third attempt now, and that attempt is this space, North by North Carolinian. Rather than deny or simply expose the factors that have the potential for harm (and many do), this space will take up the yoke of building more open-mindedness, trust and love for others who aren’t always like us. This space is dedicated to celebrating the good in different, if not altogether divergent, cultures.

At a time when I desperately miss home, I feel compelled to collect the stories, recipes, music, art, and culture that speak to who I am, rather than being made to forget what they mean to me, a North Carolinian up North.

At the same time, I feel compelled to lift up and celebrate what makes life up North lovely and full. There are so many stories, recipes, and pieces of culture that matter and help me create meaning here, as I make my life and my home in the great state of New York.

Each of these places, each of these cultures, are wildly beautiful. Each of them matter. And so do their people. With this in mind, I hope North by North Carolinian accomplishes something positive, however simple it may seem on the surface. I hope it opens minds and hearts. I hope it elevates conversations. I hope it highlights and preserves heritages rather than destroying or minimizing them over fear of difference. And as one, small act of love and resistance, I hope it amplifies the light from many people, places and things who seek to remind us that we all matter, all of the time.

Join me in the process of building a life between and as part of two cultures. May we all be brave enough to honestly examine and own ourselves, and in the process may we come to see that we are all needed, exactly as we are, exactly where we are, for as long as we choose to be there.