Friday, April 30, 2010

When Springtime Came, I Told Mr. (Robert) Frost He Could Go Away

I recently hosted an “open house” at my small, Chicago condo. The invitation was denoted as such, but included a ready acknowledgement of the fact that I have lived here nearly two years now. The party was sparked in large part by the fact that I – also recently – bought decorative pillows for the couch. This small touch seemed to instantly add a warmth and a put-together-ness that the room lacked before. The house (okay, condo) was beginning to feel like a home.
This looks far less remarkable in my “stellar” photo, but adding the pillows really did give the room a whole new look.

But what is a home, a sense of true place and comfort, without the warmth and fondness of memories that are shared? Although not that often, I have hosted parties and dinners in my home – for my parents, for my friends, and with this most recent gathering, for my neighbors. With each evening, I feel more and more invested in my home; with each evening comes a morning of happy reflection on the good food and good wine and good company that was brought together within the confines of my space. I moved in thinking “surely I will only be here for a few years.” But in closing in on that two-year mark (and yes, only now getting to those decorative pillows!), I realize that that time frame may be longer. I want this space to feel, as Liza would say, “like me.” And that feeling of familiarity and coziness and home comes not only from the pillows and furniture and decorative touches that I have chosen, but through the memories I now have of introducing my mother and dad to some of my new friends, or of making a really great lasagna for a group of guests.

That said, life cannot be lived simply within one’s own four walls. A friend once pointed out that what many people seek to find in life is a sense of community. This feeling may come from celebrating a set of shared beliefs at church, or from collectively cheering on a beloved sports team. To work toward a common goal, to support one another helps us each to feel consequential and valued and as though we are contributing to something perhaps quite lasting and larger than our own, individual selves.

I may very well be preaching to the choir. In my mind, one of the great benefits of living in a small town such as Liza’s Burkesville (and going to a small college like Centre, for that matter) is that people know one another – their families, their histories, and even (perhaps to the chagrin of some) their “business.” From this familiarity and shared history one can gather a strong sense of community.

But in a place like Chicago, knowing those whom you may encounter walking down the street or at the local coffee shop isn’t a given. In fact, I must have mentioned to a friend of mine that – upon moving to Chicago after my time at Centre – I was struck by the fact that people didn’t say hello when you would walk past them, on the sidewalk, in your neighborhood. I suppose the fact that I said this was equally striking to him, because he sent me these words in an email. We had just spent the weekend pulling unsightly bushes out of the 10’x2’ plot of dirt outside of my building, talking with my fellow condo-dwellers and passers-by:
While not the prettiest garden on the block, it’s got some spunk to it. You should have seen the “before”…

I really do like meeting neighbors and am glad that I was able to meet some people from your building. Remember when you said that when you got back to Chicago you didn’t know why people were not as friendly? I truly think that people walking by want to say hi, but they don’t because it is the norm around here. When people see you out in the garden, they are much more inclined to say hello, especially in the city for those who would enjoy the garden but don’t have one of their own. I also like that your mom gave you some plants. It is always a nice feeling to know that you are sharing plants with someone, especially your mother.

Now, as Liza would say, the point is thus. I felt the most tremendous sense of accomplishment and saw such great beauty in what I had helped create that weekend. I fell in love with the garden not just because it transformed from a pretty dumpy looking space to something a bit more attractive and colorful, but because it made me feel like I was, in every way, planting my seeds within my own little neighborhood. I had rolled my sleeves, gotten my hands dirty, and built something – something that not only transformed our front yard, but introduced me to people in the neighborhood, led to happy conversations, offerings of a few cold beers, and lots of “looks great! Wanna come do mine??!” comments. We not only built a garden that day, we also started to build a community.

And so when my 6 of my 8 building neighbors – plus one of my favorite duos in Chicago who just so happen to live directly across the street – joined my parents and friends and me for the open house a few weeks back, I felt an even greater sense of community. I learned that one grew up in Martha’s Vineyard, that the couple across the hall will be having their first child – a boy – this summer, that the pair upstairs still wants the recipe for friendship bread that I made back at Christmastime and left at their front door (I have no idea how that recipe turned out semi-edible; I threw it together after a few glasses of wine and a lot of leeway with measurements). We all know each other better now. We had a great time. And I hope that we each left feeling more invested in our neighborhood and our lives together as neighbors. I know I did.

In the weeks following that party, the garden has really started to come to life with newness and color, and I am excited about the coming months of watering, weeding, and probably filling in a few spots where last year’s plants haven’t (and won’t) come back. I am excited to spend more time outside of my own little indoor space and dig even deeper into the garden, the neighborhood, a place that is really becoming more of a home, and a life filled with good people whom I care about and know, rather than just a stop along the way. It feels good to be building something. For now it’s a simple flower garden. Some say good fences make good neighbors; I say good gardens – and nourishing meals and shared stories – make good communities, and good communities make happy homes.
In the spirit of Liza and her concluding remarks, I’d like to include a recipe for risotto that I had while at the across-the-street home of the aforementioned “favorite duo,” Myndi and Charlie DeVore. Myndi is a wonderful cook, and this, the first homemade risotto I have ever had, was a perfect balance of bright lemons, light vegetables, and all the richness that makes risotto so decadent.

Spring Green Risotto (from Barefoot Contessa Back to Basics)
1 1/2 tablespoons good olive oil
1 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 cups chopped leeks, white and light green parts (2 leeks)
1 cup chopped fennel
1 1/2 cups Arborio rice
2/3 cup dry white wine
4 to 5 cups simmering chicken stock, preferably homemade
1 pound thin asparagus
10 ounces frozen peas, defrosted, or 1 1/2 cups shelled fresh peas
1 tablespoon freshly grated lemon zest (2 lemons)
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/3 cup mascarpone cheese, preferably Italian
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan, plus extra for serving
3 tablespoons minced fresh chives, plus extra for serving

Heat the olive oil and butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add the leeks and fennel and sauté for 5 to 7 minutes, until tender. Add the rice and stir for a minute to coat with the vegetables, oil, and butter. Add the white wine and simmer over low heat, stirring constantly, until most of the wine has been absorbed. Add the chicken stock, 2 ladles at a time, stirring almost constantly and waiting for the stock to be absorbed before adding more. This process should take 25 to 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, cut the asparagus diagonally in 1 1/2-inch lengths and discard the tough ends. Blanch in boiling salted water for 4 to 5 minutes, until al dente. Drain and cool immediately in ice water. (If using fresh peas, blanch them in boiling water for a few minutes until the starchiness is gone.)
When the risotto has been cooking for 15 minutes, drain the asparagus and add it to the risotto with the peas, lemon zest, 2 teaspoons salt, and 1 teaspoon pepper. Continue cooking and adding stock, stirring almost constantly, until the rice is tender but still firm.

Whisk the lemon juice and mascarpone together in a small bowl. When the risotto is done, turn off the heat and stir in the mascarpone mixture plus the Parmesan cheese and chives. Set aside, off the heat, for a few minutes, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and serve hot with a sprinkling of chives and more Parmesan cheese.
I’d also like to share a few photos of Myndi and Charlie. They are, in my estimation, exceptional people. (As a point of reference, I consider Liza to be an “exceptional” person.) I just love that they are right across the street and that we can share evenings of good music, great food, and a rousing game of Scrabble. Charlie is currently hard at work as he studies for his finals at Northwestern Law School. I am not sure who will be happier when they’re done – Myndi or Charlie. You might not be able to see too many of the little decorative touches in these photos, but they have an apartment that is full of pieces of homemade artwork, beautiful family photos, and books books books that reflect how well read and interesting they truly are. They are the kind of friends I wish all my other friends could meet and know….which is exactly the way I feel about Liza (thank you for asking/letting me contribute, Liza – in the words of Garth, “I’m not worthy!” Really, though. I’m not).

This is Myndi with her little brother Jake (left) and Charlie (the tall guy). Aren’t they a nice looking family?

The DeVores: Silliness is important.


  1. So honored to have made it to Liza's blog! We feel just as lucky to have you as a neighbor Caroline. Loving the blog Liza! Keeping doing what you do! Best, m

  2. You know, the whole "it's the journey, not the destination" (or as Miley Cyrus argues, "the climb":)) saying has been on my mind lately. While I am certain that there's much to be said for taking in the moments along the way, it also seems that "the journey" is sometimes romanticized as this "learn about your self" path to enlightenment. Sometimes life is found in the destination.:)
    I so enjoyed hearing your take on "community" Caroline. Thank you for contributing. Love you:)

    And Myndi, I am honored to have you and Charlie on here! Caroline says such wonderful things about you both:) Plan to try the risotto sometime this weekend (and by the way, the risotto video on The Naming of Things was so quirky and cute - loved it).

  3. Caroline- it is so neat to get a peek into your life and your apartment (LOVE the pillows-seriously where did you get them?). Life in Chicago seems so far removed from my daily life in South Central Kentucky. However, listening to you talk about your small garden plot, neighbors and sense of community- it really does not feel that far away after all. Great entry Caroline!!

  4. Ahh, but what really IS the destination, Liza? Do we ever really stop journeying? I'm sure this is what Miley was thinking when she penned her latest tune (is that even her latest? I don't know).

    And Lindsey, thanks so much for the thoughtful remarks! The pillows are from West Elm (they always seem to have great pillows). And I really do think of all of you Turners and Lees and Morgans as family and therefore, community : ) Hope to see you real soon!

  5. The destination is where one feels like the best version of themself. Short answer: Marrowbone:)
    You genuinely are family to all of us, Caroline.:)

  6. Caroline, Sounds like the only thing you need to add that community feel is a front porch swing. Many profound conversations have taken place on our swing. Also sharing cups of morning coffee, singing of lullabies to sleepy babies, daydreaming all the while being surrounded by beloved dogs (Tucker, Willy, Lucy, Waffle, and Rowdy) I'm guessing, though, you would not want to sit on the swing in your pjs in Chicago like we do in Waterview.

    I love the photos of your condo. The pillows do add a very inviting comfy touch. We Turners are big fans of pillows. I have been known to switch out pillows with the change of seasons. Most of the time they end up on the floor because there is no room to sit on the couches.

    You will enjoy the taste of your home-grown veggies. There's just something special about eating fresh food from a garden especially your own. Enjoy!

  7. If we had a neighborhood Billy, I would most certainly sit on the porch in my pjs!

    And Liza, in light of this comment, but perhaps even moreso in light of your most recent post, I do wonder if coming back to that "home" and all those feelings that go along with the return and the heightened awareness of one's roots and ties - if all this is more easily found when one comes from a place like Cumberland Co. You have so many pieces that lead to community - family, land and farms, local businesses rather than chains. As I've said before, I just don't feel that for DG, although I do - to a degree - for Louisville. I just wonder if there is something inherent in small towns, rural towns, that makes this sensation more possible. Does that make sense? (Quite a question for a blog comment!)

  8. It definitely makes sense. More importantly, I think it is indication that you should move to Louisville or somewhere in Cumberland County. Yep, that's exactly what it means.
    (and in all seriousness, I think it's a great question...I would like to use it as a springboard to other entries if that's okay with you).

    Mom, you must do an entry soon. Even in that relatively short comment, I feel the sense of comfort and coziness and relatability that you just inadvertantly/unconsciously create. LOL.

  9. Of course you may! I had some more thoughts on all that as I was walking around yesterday, but they're gone now.

    And I would really and truly love to read a post from Jackie. What a treat! I second the motion!

  10. For me, I imagine that the sensation of "coming home" would be less about the actual town or community and more about the people I have around. Without the ones I love, I'm not sure my roots in Marrowbone/Cumberland Co. would hold much meaning or feeling. Liza and I talked a bit about my feelings on this during our run on Easter morning. I am envious (in a good way!) of Liza's homecoming-I am so happy for you!

  11. Good point, Lindsey. When I get ready to do this post, maybe you, Caroline, and I could all offer perspectives.

  12. I do agree, Lindsey. I've thought about it some more, and realize that I do feel a great sense of place in going to work each day - odd as it is. And the reason is twofold: I really do love working on a college campus and the feeling of learning going on all around me, but more than anything it's because I absolutely love working with the people I work with - two in particular. I've thought if I would enjoy work as much if they were gone, and I'm certain I wouldn't. Nor would I feel such strong ties to the place.