Artist Date 69: Spicy. Trouble.

It smells warm inside Savory Spice Shop on Lincoln Avenue. Artist Date 69. And while I know intellectually that warm is not a smell, it feels like it. Spicy. BBQ rubs. One is called Pearl Street Plank. I take a photograph of it.

I am afraid I am going to get into trouble.

I am often afraid of getting into trouble. Like the time Julie and I smoked cigarettes inside the multiplex at a midnight showing of The Crying Game.

The movie had been out for a while and we were the only ones in the theatre. Julie lit up. I was aghast. “What? Are you afraid we are going to get into trouble?” she asked. A little bit mocking. Well, yes…I was. Just like when we smoked cigarettes in seventh grade on Shabbat.

Julie was raised in an Orthodox Jewish household. On Saturdays, my mother would drop me there for the day. Sometimes we watched movies on the Betamax (Meatballs was our favorite.) – her father’s concession.

Irv was a wise man who understood that raising his girls in an observant home, but not in an observant neighborhood, was tricky. Their customs were “other” than those of the secular Jews surrounding them. So while Julie could not go to movies and dances on Friday night and Saturday, she was allowed to watch movies, regardless of the prohibition against using electronics on the Sabbath. And also to go for long walks. Walks that often involved McDonalds’ French fries and Virginia Slims Menthol 100s.

Julie was brazen. I was convinced we were going to get caught and get into trouble. We didn’t. But that sense that I might have to explain myself has never entirely left me. Even today at the Savory Spice Shop.

I know some stores prohibit photography. I know I could ask if it is ok. But I don’t. Instead I snap and hope no one will question me. It is this sort of internal gyration that causes me anxiety. The kind I could easily avoid.

2014-03-23 14.14.42An employee says to let her know if I have any questions, and invites me to sample and to brush any excess onto the floor. She adds that my boots are “magnificent,” and we talk for a solid five minutes about the quest to merge fashion and function. I am reminded, part of the joy of a funky aesthetic is people want to talk to you. Want to talk to me.

She makes no comment about my photography.

I finger baking spices and books on pickling. But the spices from far away call me like a siren. Exotic. Other. Like I always wanted to be. I try to conjure up the smells of the market in Kigali, in Argles, in Jerusalem, but I cannot. I only know I was there.

I smell red peppercorns from the Szechuan Province. Green ones from Mysore. Dried Kaffir Lime Leaves. Asafetida from Iran, also known as Devil’s Dung and Stinking Gum. The label says it smells like garlic gone bad. To me, it smells like sulfur. Eggs.

There are Grains of Paradise from West Africa and Pinchito from Southern Spain. Preserved Lemon and Pomegranate Molasses. Marrakech Moroccan Spice and Berbere Ethiopian Seasoning.

2014-03-23 14.19.28I think about cooking and wonder what I would make. My repertoire has become small as a single woman. Often times, it just doesn’t seem worth it. So I stick to egg-white omelets, soups and salads. Black beans, kale and squash. An occasional piece of fish roasted with fennel and oranges and olives.

I think about travel. The recent loud and incessant call to go away – somewhere big. Somewhere sexy. Sometime this year – my 45th come October. Italy or India.

Today I do not have to decide.

Instead, I allow myself the pleasure of revisiting Africa. Spain. And France.

Israel. Germany. Amsterdam.

Ireland and Mexico.

To return to each marketplace I visited – photographing beans drying in the sun. Salted fish. Unskinned rabbit hanging from a hook.

To the suburban movie theatre and the safety of Julie’s home. To her basement where her papa fed us Oreo cookies with a finger pressed to his lips as if to say, “shh…don’t tell.”

I think about the real trouble I caused in my travels.  The kind I should have been worried about but wasn’t. In Berlin.  Avignon.  Puerto Vallarta.  Today I know better.

Today there are no secrets. Nothing to hide. Nothing to get me into trouble.

Plant Whisperer

dying plantI killed a cactus.

Actually three of them.  And two succulents.

One of the cacti sat in a beautiful terrarium – a gift from a friend.  I took it to the shop owner and he replaced it with a sweet baby succulent, along with specific instructions.  Water once a month.  Half a cup, using a dropper.  The succulent gets an extra watering mid-month.  Ditto for the larger succulent, a jade, I bought the same day.

The baby succulent wilted to nothing – is lying flaccid upon itself.  One of the cacti, like the first, is about to go.  And one is gone. Dead.  Dried up.  As if it had never been there.

And the jade?

I bought it in response to the suggestion I don’t date for a year.  An homage to Leviticus – to the prescribed year without planting and harvesting that follows seven years of specific crop rotation, allowing the soil to rest, regenerate, to become prepared.

I remember sitting in meditation and the imagery coming to me, followed by the thought, “I am the soil.”  And then, “I should get a plant.”

All went well for a few weeks.  And then it appeared to perhaps be outgrowing its container.  (The shop owner assured me it wouldn’t for at least five years.)  The soil seemed constantly dry, even though I followed watering directions to the letter – sitting it in the sink and letting the faucet run until water leaked out of the bottom.

Now, two sad, pale green stalks remain.

Normally, I would laugh about this.  I never have had terribly good luck with plants.  Except for mint.  And even that dried up eventually.  However, this jade had come to be a symbol of me taking care of me, of my own soil.  So its demise makes me more than a little uneasy.

I remember coming home with it.  Talking to it.  (I never talked to a plant before.)  I told it I didn’t know how to care for it.  That it would have to tell me how.

I recently read a piece in Oprah about a woman who claimed to have a black thumb.  She planted a garden and she got weeds.

One day a friend informed her that her weeds weren’t just any weeds – that they were delicacies in Japan, good for cooking.

But her cooking was like her gardening — yielding less-than-desired results.   Until she asked for help.

She took the weeds to a chef in New York.  He taught her how to cook them.  And she kept bringing them.  Eventually selling them to the restaurant, and about 100 others.

A couple of years ago, she and the chef wrote a cookbook together – Foraged Flavor .  She quit her job as legal counsel to devote herself fulltime to her new work.

And my dead plants?  What are they, the universe, God, trying to tell me – besides that I too have a black thumb?  As my friend Stan likes to say, “What’s the lesson?  What’s the gift?”

That sometimes conditions are just too unfavorable – that the plants needed a little bit of light and received none?  That other people – even shop owners, even experts – don’t always have the answers?  That I can follow directions and still get shitty results – that nothing is guaranteed?

That things die?  That I need to pay attention to what is still living (barely) and nurture that?

That the soil is poor, needs nutrients?  That my year off is ending early?

I don’t know.

The plants have proven themselves to be quiet messengers.  I will continue to ask, and to listen closely.