On Feeling Lucky, and a Simple Potato Soup

[In Golden Gate Park, March 2011.]

This past weekend I was in Phoenix where it was hot during the day but cool and dry at night, the stars fanned out across a clear sky sparkling like starfish. We drove through the desert, past cactus and Creosote bushes, to Sedona, where the red-rocked cliffs loomed large. It felt like summer: dry and hot and blazingly sunny with the deepest blue sky. Strange, then, to read about an earthquake in Japan that roiled the ocean into a massive wave of destruction; there were a few creeks and rivers in Arizona that we passed by but otherwise the landscape is dusty and empty of water.

Sometimes unfathomable things happen in the world — the earth heaves and groans and the oceans swell to unreasonable heights and wash away buildings, boats, people. And there is nothing for it other than to wonder; things are unexplainable but they are no less intense for our inability to comprehend them. All the while I was away this weekend one word tickled at the back of my mind: lucky lucky lucky to be so safe, so far away from danger. Such a small thing, really, but then again it is every thing.

I remember in 2005 after the terrible tsunami that ravaged much of Southern Asia I felt helpless, impotent. I wanted to donate money to the Red Cross and so I did, but I had so little; would it really make a difference? But I couldn’t do nothing. And so with my friends an idea began to form, in part inspired by the election fundraisers of the previous fall: a benefit party, with all proceeds donated to the Red Cross and earmarked for tsunami aid. About six of us pooled our resources and sent out many emails and came up with a simple menu. The day arrived and we cooked lots of pasta, made bowls of salad, opened many bottles of wine, slid pans of apple crisp into the oven, and hoped for a crowd.

All these years later, I’m still humbled and honored by the turnout — I think we drew over 30 people, and all came bearing cash and smiles and a hearty appetite. The meal may have been simple — spaghetti with pesto; penne with red sauce; garlic bread; green salad; baked fruit and ice cream — but the goal was clear: to help, even in some small way. And of course a way to appreciate the luck of our existence — as it often is — is through gathering together simply to be together, to be grateful for it.

Amazingly, life spins on — in Japan, in Southern Asia — despite everything. And we, the fortunate ones, can help and we can mourn and mostly we can keep going, no matter what. We can make soup, feel the sun shine down hot and heavy, look out over an immense valley bordered by mountains and hope only for this — peace and gentler days ahead, all throughout the world.

All weekend I did feel that yes, I am so lucky. I hope never to take it for granted.

* Tonight I’m going to prop my eyes open (4:15 wake-up this morn) as long as it takes to make this soup for dinner — I made it last week with farmers market potatoes and a bunch of lovely leeks; it’s not fancy, but it’s comforting, nourishing, and leaves me feeling exceedingly glad simply to be alive. As I chopped the garlic, I remembered I had gathered a few bay leaves on my last foray to Inverness and. I knew they would be exactly what this soup needed to transform it from mere week-night dinner to something much more enticing. This soup is still mellow and smooth — with all those potatoes, how could it not be? — but hints of water and trees. It is of and from the forest, which beckons with all its unexplored beauty and mystery.

Each sip brought me back to the woods — to a night sky thickly blanketed with stars, to a weekend filled with booming ocean and empty stretches of sand, to hills lining the coast for miles, to Limantour Beach littered with whole, perfect sand dollars.

It brought the wild to the city, if only for as long as it took me to finish the bowl-ful.

(Of course, you may make it without bay leaves, and it will still taste hearty and delicious.)

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  1. Beautiful post.
    I have been feeling so fortunate that all day my biggest problem at the moment is that my toes are cold from sitting inside my shoes.

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