We live in a world of funny juxtapositions. From oxymorons like jumbo shrimp, to the acceptance and melancholy that comes with all things bittersweet. Whatever side there is, there is always the other side, and all of what’s in between. Often, I find that it’s what’s in the middle of two extremes that’s the most surprising.
I haven’t had much time to dedicate to crafting in months, but my office hosted a pumpkin decorating event last week and I jumped at the opportunity to join. It brought me so much joy to play and paint this spooky scene:
The older I get, the more I realize how important it is to make time for play.
I’d been in a funk for several weeks. I was grateful for the success I’ve experienced with work, yet on the other side, overwhelmed with a sense of responsibility paired with a profound unknowingness. I felt paralyzed, both emotionally and physically, often straining to get out of bed. I woke up with the news today that there may be another Zika outbreak, which was followed by the impending doom to follow if we don’t figure out the climate crisis, which was then followed by economists weighing in on why my generation is financially screwed. I clicked off and decided I’d spend my energy on only one crisis today.
I’d forced myself back into a routine the last couple of weeks. I cut out junk and forced my body to move. I told friends I wouldn’t be available, as I needed space to process what I was feeling. They understood, of course. They are full of love in that way.
I went back into my garden, tending to my rose bush that bloomed with an even greater abundance after I’d pruned it liberally in an attempt to rid it of aphids. My dwarf banana tree sprouted a pup, which I repotted. My baby avocado tree stood up proudly. My sampaguita are taking to their ladder, two vines climbing up in parallel in a double helix. The heirloom tomato seeds I planted months ago have grown tall and are in need of a new trellis.
As I worked in my garden, the neighborhood toddlers would pay me a visit. They would come to see George, my cat, who they’d grown fond of. Months ago, it was just one. Now I have three toddlers playing in my yard. They came every day, and soon, my afternoons and early evenings at home were spent laughing with them, playing pretend, about Everything and Everywhere All At Once.
I saw that film this evening. I walked out after the credits, tears streaming down my cheeks. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was exactly what I needed. “Don’t look at me!” I scowled at my friend as we left the theater. “I look ugly.” We laughed and parted with a hearty embrace.
I took a ceramics course for a month and have probably taken about seven courses in total. Despite my inclination for making all kinds of art, working with my hands, and all the classes I’ve taken dedicated just to throwing, I can safely say that I can barely make a bowl, haha!
This set of classes, I decided to let loose. Generally a detail-oriented and meticulous person, the best gift I’ve learned from making art is that this is a space where I can allow myself to be free. And with that, I’ve rediscovered the childlike joy and wonder of play for the sake of play.
At its best, cooking and eating are cultural, spiritual practices. They draw together a plethora of ingredients and sensations meant to be felt and savored in combination and sequence. There is something symbolic about preparing my countertop—the ritual in bringing together and sharpening my knives, the intention behind rinsing produce, the rhythm in slicing and chopping. And then there are the aromas that fill the air. The smoke from searing meat and veggies. The warmth of the kitchen.
I grew up cooking with my family. One of my favorite questions to ask people is about a food that reminds them of home. I moved around frequently—often every year—so geography has little bearing to my perception of this home. For me, home is feeling, a memory, a concept. My most vivid memory of food and home comes from rolling lumpia, the Filipino style of egg rolls, with my family. While my parents worked over the stove in the kitchen, my aunt would sit with me and my cousins at the table, teaching us how to roll tight, uniform lumpia. There was a precision to it, yet at the same time, my family never measured anything. “You can’t taste with your eyes,” my dad would laugh. My dad was always happy in the kitchen.
My parents sent me home with lumpia over the Thanksgiving weekend. They were lovingly wrapped in foil and waiting in the freezer. We typically have lumpia with sweet and sour sauce, but I didn’t have any at my apartment. Just like my dad taught me, I adapted a sauce with what I had. My dad taught me a lot about cooking, and one of them was enjoying the process. “What’s the worst that could happen? Just add lemon!” my dad would smirk.
So I put together my interpretation of sweet and sour sauce for lumpia. Sambal, honey, patis, brown sugar, rice vinegar, water. I found my dipping sauce to taste less like the traditional sweet and sour sauce of my lumpia and more like an amalgamation of Southeast Asian inspirations. Growing up next to Little Saigon and living in Long Beach, I transported myself to a home of homes.
It rained today, so I delayed my grocery run. I reached into my freezer and pulled out frozen steaks. I didn’t use lemon, but I squeezed some lime and sprinkled some sea salt and crushed black pepper on each side. I’m a novice when it comes to cooking steak, but I think I did all right this time.
Today after work, I decided to combine two of my favorite hobbies—gardening and painting. I’d been growing a pineapple top since late last year, and it’s sprouted more than double the leaves it started with. To celebrate, I gave its planter a new look.
I present… meta piña:
This was a fun, low stress project and a perfect way to close out a number of stressful weeks.
I was speaking to my partner about a painting I recently finished, which I titled, “Dream of Flight:”
I spend so much of my time day dreaming. My head constantly in the clouds, an eternal optimist, for better or for worse. I often laugh with my partner, who is the pragmatist out of the two of us, that I spend so much time in my thoughts that the line between earth and sky becomes a blur.
In the times when I’m much more invested in my inward world, I ask myself if I’m trying to escape something. Truthfully? Yes.
As a latch key kid in a working class immigrant family, I grew up quite independently. I am the eldest of three (actually, eight, but that’s another story), having to learn how to cook for myself as early as 5 years old, then cooking for my younger brothers as well. Cooking and eating was always about what was convenient.
I started working while I was in high school, and I worked all throughout college. Time was always scarce. By the time I had my first job as a high school teacher, lunch break was rarely long enough for me to breathe. When I started training to become and then became a doctor, I mastered eating (and sleeping) standing up, inhaling my food in 5 minutes. By then, I’d accepted that food was not meant to be enjoyed. It was fuel, and the best I could hope for was that it tasted okay.
Life has changed significantly since then. Constantly on the run, I felt totally disconnected from my body and developed a number of health issues. My body was screaming at me to change my lifestyle, which meant that I needed to treat it like it was the treasure it is. For me, that started with exercising for joy and eating for pleasure, and slowing down and being more present and intentional in my day.
For me, presence and intention manifests in what I can make with my hands, and food is one of those things. Granted, cooking can be a luxury. Like many luxuries, it takes resources, whether that’s time, money, access, or experience. Coming from a country where canned meat is king, cooking with fresh ingredients truly feels like a blessing, and making the time to cook and eat with such presence has become a luxurious spiritual experience.
I was marinating mackerel in miso that I plan to broil in a couple of days. I thought I’d take a stab at concocting my own version of pork belly braised in miso-butter:
These days, especially because I like to develop my own recipes and am constantly tweaking them, I take the time to plate my food and savor what I’m eating. And more often than not, this experience is worth savoring.