This Rain

[Out the window, January 2010.]

Every day this week I’ve woken up to rain pouring over the roof of my apartment building and sliding down the windows. It’s going to rain until spring, my coworker grumbled this morning as we turned up in the office lamenting our sodden pants and shaking out our umbrellas. A year ago around this time I think I was eating ice cream and trying to figure out how the heck it was 80-degrees in San Francisco in January.

Times change, no?

But we need this rain, endless or not. California is perpetually water-poor, and though I might rather the rain come in proper spurts that don’t wash houses down hillsides and spill over the banks of the rivers up north I can’t honestly curse these storms. It’s winter after all and winter in the West means rain.

Besides, even when I know I have to make the trek to the bus clutching an umbrella and hoping the wind won’t pick up to much, those first few minutes of pre-7a time in my peaceful, blue-gloomed room are worth any soakings that might come (OK, almost).

In January I find I am quiet. It’s the good kind of quiet, though — the kind that is slow and post-holiday and full of soup and milky tea and citrus fruit. All-too-brief trips to the East Coast aside, for the most part I am like middle winter itself, when it sleepily rubs its eyes clean and looks ahead toward the next 11 months (for me there will be two trips to Maine in there, and lunch parties, and at least one half-marathon, and if I am very, very lucky, even a backpacking trip to the mountains). But not to get too ahead of myself: this time right now, quiet and sleepy as it is, is pretty lovely too.

In January, also, I find I always read Steinbeck. Last year it was my beloved “Sweet Thursday”; this year I’m revisiting “Cannery Row” because it has been far too long. (Of course, a little Steinbeck is appropriate at any time, particularly in dry dusty August, but for some reason it is especially right in the new year.) Each time I do, I’m struck by the way the man could write a sentence — of course I’m a bit biased because he wrote about California so beautifully, but it’s more than that. I think it’s just that he was so good.

For example: Doc was collecting marine animals in the Great Tide Pool on the tip of the Peninsula. It is a fabulous place: when the tide is in, a wave-churned basin, creamy with foam, whipped by the combers that roll in from the whistling buoy on the reef. But when the tide goes out the little water world becomes quiet and lovely.


While he ate his sandwich and sipped his beer, a bit of conversation came back to him. Blaisedell, the poet, had said to him, “You love beer so much. I’ll bet some day you’ll go in and order a beer milk shake.” It was a simple piece of foolery but it had bothered Doc ever since. He wondered what a beer milk shake would taste like. … Would it curdle the milk? Would you add sugar?

(Both from “Cannery Row.”)

(The whole book is crammed with sentences like that. I really wish I could hang out with Doc for the afternoon and go tide-pooling.)

In “Journal of a Novel,” which is the journal he kept while writing “East of Eden” (I’ll save my re-read of this one for 2011 perhaps), Steinbeck wrote how sometimes it would take an entire day’s work to write just a few paragraphs (with the all-important break for lunch, of course, and a glass of beer). A whole day! For just a few paragraphs! And yet … and yet. I will confess I wish I could do the same in more aspects of my life even as I might drive myself ever so slightly crazy. That attention to detail is admirable.

Right, so what does John Steinbeck have to do with food? At first glance not much probably, but it’s the idea of him and how he worked that ties in so neatly. Steinbeck wrote with precise intention, and put great thought into every word he set down on the page, chewing it over until it pleased him. Even if it took longer than he might have liked to reach that place, he took his time and really thought about it.

I forget sometimes, you see, that I must live each day with this same purpose and intent. I get busy. I make the same soups over and over again because they’re easy and delicious, if a bit boring. I might let the cauliflower roast a little too long because I’m doing something else and if I had just paid more attention it would be even better … I make my coffee quickly in my little one-cup ‘brewer’ rather than using the proper pot. I forget to consider in the mad rush to get to work on time and return the library books and and and.

Oh, but I must! We

must. Living — and cooking — with intention is really not so very difficult, I know. It can be as simple as taking really thinking about how turnips might go with bok choy, sauteed with a tiny bit of soy sauce (and tasted judiciously while stirring them together rather than just hoping for the best) (note: they go together very well!), or considering more carefully what herbs to add to a pan of roasted green beans and walnuts. Don’t laugh, but I’m often rushing about so much I forget to slow down and take a minute to think about this stuff.

It’s so worth taking that minute — to open the window and let the rain come in while taking a photo of the tree outside just because it looks so pretty. To eat cookies slowly, like I did this afternoon — nostalgia cookies, full of chocolate and almonds, covered in more chocolate and almonds, and run through with cinnamon; you know, Sunday afternoon barefoot in the sunshine, sitting on the deck with the cat in the shade cookies. (I tasted all of that in those cookies, I swear. I took the time to let myself.) And this morning I made myself real coffee in the pot and drank a cup while watching the rain come down and postponing the inevitable drippy walk. It was wonderful.

[Dinner, January 2010.]

Tonight I came home and threw on my running clothes and went out for a (slow, slightly crap) run. On the turnaround I looked up for a second to see the stars flung out in the bowl of the sky for the first time in days. The wind had picked up and had pushed all the rain inland; along the coast it was clear and still and the stars burned down out of the darkness. I thought about Haiti and the horrors there and wished on those same stars that somehow things like this won’t ever happen again. I thought yet again how fortunate I am to live in this city where, when the earth shakes, the buildings stand mostly straight and firm. This should not be a luxury for a good part of the world.

After, I roasted a cauliflower and heated up some baked beans. It was a simple dinner but I made sure the beans were perfectly heated through instead of just eating them as-is, and when the rain started again I hardly minded. I sat at the table and read a little more — Once, when Doc was at the University of Chicago he had love trouble and he worked too hard. He thought it would be nice to take a very long walk. He put on a little knapsack and he walked through Indiana and Kentucky and North Caroline and clear through to Florida. He walked among farmers and mountain people, among the swamp people and fisherman. And everywhere people asked him why he was walking through the country. Because he loved true things he tried to explain. — and savored the gorgeous words. I sent a little thank-you to Mr. Steinbeck, who I think would have understood.

See, there is just this one life. Take the time to cook for pleasure and nourishment both. Seek out the true things. Listen to the rain. (Re)read “Cannery Row,” as soon as possible.

Look up.

Join the Conversation

  1. You really summed it all up so well. Beautiful. I’m looking up.

  2. Lovely blog, just like its owner :)

  3. I love Steinbeck too, and Cannery Row is one of my favorites. I used to have a crush on Doc, in fact, I think I still would if I re-read the book now.

  4. Nicole:
    Attentive moments, indeed. I thought this morning about how January is a time for practiced, thorough, in-the-moment living: to dream, make plans for the far-enough-off, and also make no sudden moves just yet.
    In rereading Steinbeck (or our own sentences of life that we’ve laid into our narratives), we remember that we still can perfect it, like Steinbeck. And ponder those beer milk shakes.

  5. I know . . . Sometimes I think I have to slow down just to remember how much salt to put on my food. And it really only takes a moment to become conscious — stop, breath, think, be. Thanks for the nicely written reminder. It’s raining in Michigan too. Think I’ll take some time to listen to it today.

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