I hadn’t intended on writing a post today, but here I am.

I tend to schedule out my days and weeks accordingly, but today did not go as planned. It was a bad day. I should have known it was coming this morning but I neglected the signs—my sudden flashes of anger and being more irritable than usual.

I managed to make it through my (thankfully) short workday before falling apart, sobs wracking my entire body, sitting alone in a dark closet. (I like to feel contained when I feel out of control like this). In hindsight, it all sounds so melodramatic. I have a mood disorder that occasionally likes to rear its ugly head. Today was one of the more minor episodes, but nonetheless it was a pretty discouraging and unproductive day. I lost an entire day of writing and my kitchen is a mess.

For now, I’m floating along in that strange feeling of calm that settles in after a good cry. It’s days like this that I try to remember to be kind and patient to myself. There will be other days to write. I can wash the dishes in the morning. Tomorrow guarantees nothing but there is a realm of possibilities in store.

I suppose there isn’t much of a point to this post. And it certainly isn’t the most eloquent thing I’ve ever written. But if anything, I hope it serves as a reminder to be kind to yourself, be patient with yourself, and that it’s okay sometimes to take a sick day when you need it most.

Take care,

–M

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The Matter of Us

What is the matter of us

but a smattering

of sweet nothings,

exchanged as love notes

tucked between pillows

to open again at morning’s hellos

sent spilling

into our windows

like a fine white wine.

What are we made of

if not infinities,

the hourglass bind of dust and bone,

the impossible time between dusk and dawn.

Book Stash: “Stiff” A Review

“How can you eat with feet looking at you?” My manager asks. I’m having lunch at the backroom desk.

“Huh?” I look up from my plate. “Oh.”

He’s referring to the book sitting on the table next to me. Its cover features a photograph of a pair of feet, soles up. There is a sheet covering the legs of those feet down to the ankle. A tag is looped around the rightmost big toe.

I shrug. “Doesn’t bother me,” I say.

“What’s it about anyway?” he asks.

“Cadavers.”

My manager looks at me as though I’ve just told him I enjoy performing satanic rituals on kittens in my spare time. I can only imagine the looks the author herself must have gotten.


Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers is an exploration of what happens to our bodies after we die, whether it be decomposition, organ donation, or serving as crash test dummies.

While a book about dead bodies may seem a bit off-putting to some, Mary Roach’s dry, deadpan humor breathes life into this morbidly fascinating tale of what physically happens to us after death.

Stiff spans centuries and continents, exploring the mummification techniques of the ancient Egyptians, investigating a modern day Sweeney Todd-esque tale of human dumplings, and relaying the use of cadaveric medicine in the past, which made me really appreciative of the fact I live in this century. (The amount of topical uses for human feces, as well as human remains is alarming. Dried fecal matter for blemishes, anyone? How about distilled human skull as a treatment for epilepsy. Medieval medicine is a terrifying venture.)

Through it all, Roach shows an admiration for these cadavers. These unnamed heroes have saved countless lives through medicine, have helped solve crimes in forensics, and are instrumental in making safer vehicles, equipment, and surgical procedures for those of us still kicking.

Stiff is not a book for the squeamish or faint of heart, but it is a book that manages to be lighthearted while still paying homage to all the great work our bodies have done after we leave them.

3/4 Would recommend

Gifts

This hair is a gift. This skin is a gift.

I try to remind myself of this, because honestly sometimes it’s hard to remember. I try to remember this now more than ever, especially since now I have a little sister. After twenty-one long years as an only child, my mother had another daughter. She’s three now and wild in a way that’s both admirable and irritating. She leaves no mystery as to what’s on her mind, always makes her objections known, and is the most stubborn and willful person I ever knew.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I admit that I don’t care much for children and my sister is no exception. I like quiet, uninterrupted breakfasts. Excluding my daily walks, I don’t really care for the outdoors either. I don’t know how to interact with children, and to be honest, have never had much of an interest. Even as a child I had little interest in other children. (I was that obnoxiously precocious kid that always wanted to sit at the adult’s table.)

I will say that for all her terrible toddlerness, my sister is remarkably patient. Not so much in the way of waiting for an ice cream cone or a trip to the park, but she is incredibly patient with me. She shrugs it off and doesn’t hold it against me when I bristle at her having interrupted my writing. She never stops trying to engage with me, despite my being an occasional sourpuss. Instead of her favorite game of dress-up and pretend, she suggests for us the quieter task of coloring together. Sometimes, she sits at the table with me in quiet, scribbling nonsense in her construction pad while I type away on my computer. She tries, in her own way, to relate to me somehow.

I suppose you’re wondering now what all this has to do with my hair, or my skin for that matter.

One of the first things people noticed about my sister was her color. Upon seeing her for the first time, people would almost always comment on her color. “She’s awful brown,” my aunt said the first time she’d held her. You see, my sister’s color came as a surprise. My mother, her sister, and myself—nearly the entire side of my mother’s family, really—all have lighter skin. We all come in shades of tan but my sister is a deep mahogany. Even my mother remarks on the difference in color. “I thought she’d be lighter,” she’s said more than once.

You forget how early it starts, how young we are when we first begin learning to find beauty in only a few choice shades. How we are told coils are in need of being tamed. How we look for mirrors in the world around us but find no reflections of ourselves, or worse yet, grossly distorted images, sad caricatures bearing no resemblance to us at all.

My sister favors one of her dolls over the other. She doesn’t like the look of the black one. The dolls are the same, save for the difference in skin tone. Same brand, same features, same hair. But the black doll “looks funny” and “isn’t pretty” and is neglected in favor of her lighter companion. It shouldn’t come as a surprise really, the doll test has been recreated numerous times over the years, with similar results.

But my heart sinks low when she tells me she wants to have “straight pretty hair” like Mama and me, that she doesn’t like her hair. I worry about the day she’ll compare her color to ours, if she’ll see deficiency in difference.

I’m growing out my natural hair now, much to the chagrin of my immediate family. I had “such pretty long hair,” so why was I ruining it by letting it be, by wearing it the way it grows out of my head? My natural hair is “a waste” and “unbecoming.” My mother doesn’t think it “suits” me, and if I’m being perfectly honest, sometimes I don’t think it does either. But I have to remind myself that this isn’t the truth, it’s just what we’ve been taught.

So I try to remember, especially on the days I don’t feel confident or pretty that yes, this hair is a gift, this skin is a gift, in hopes that one day, my sister will know it too.

–M

Icarus

You are heat seeker

boy

with snuffing lips moth-drawn to flames,

Soot eater,

Try to bury yourself in warmth but succeed only

in swallowing all heat

and light.

You want the sun in this skin,

this unbearable light to bend to breath,

your extinguished breath

absorbing all

You forget

the sea is lined with ash,

this bright that crumbles bone

to dust.

Your parched throat mistook me for kindling

But what good is flame to a hearth

filled only

with ashes.

Poetry Stash

There is a jar in my bedroom.

It sits well-sunned beneath a window, rests next to an empty wire birdcage. It is filled to the brim with receipts, pastry bags, sticky notes, old homework assignments, napkins. Each spare piece of paper scribbled on in my clumsy hand, folded up and tucked away like love notes from suitors past.

I’ve been stashing poetry in this jar for a little over a year. Cracking it open I’ve found some gems, some laughable lines, some warm moments, and some painful memories. It’s like opening a time capsule and seeing an older draft of myself preserved there. So much has happened in that time. I moved, started a new job, started a relationship, saw that relationship run its course, and dealt with the unpredictable nature of my illness and all its ups and downs. Reading over the poetry I wrote in that time was a strange, yet cathartic experience I haven’t found the right words to describe.

I suppose it’s an exercise I’ll continue. In some ways it’s the equivalent to keeping a journal or diary (although less frequent), which I’ve never managed to devote the time to. (I do have some uncompleted journals I started as a teenager which are beyond cringe-worthy, so maybe that’s for the best.)

So now I have an empty jar by the window. Who knows what sweet nothings will fill it yet and what another year has in store for me. I look forward to it.

-M

Recipe Stash: Horchata

Horchata Recipe Take #1

I’ve been browsing the web for a while now looking for the perfect horchata recipe that has the right balance of sweetness and spice. Since lactose and I aren’t the best of friends either and I like a lighter horchata, I wanted a recipe that omitted milk products and wasn’t syrupy sweet. This recipe is a work in progress that I’m tweaking, but so far after making it this way I was pleased with the results. This recipe made roughly about a quart of horchata.

To make this horchata you will need:

  • 1/3 cup uncooked, long-grain rice
  • 1 cup almonds
  • 2 cinnamon sticks
  • 5 cups water, divided (3 cups hot, 2 cups cold)
  • 1/2 cup sugar (dissolved in a little hot water until it becomes a syrup)
  • cheesecloth (tea towels and flour sacks will also do if you cannot find a cheesecloth)
  • fine mesh strainer
  • splash of vanilla extract (to taste)
  • time, and a lot of it

To make the horchata (2-day recipe):

  1. First thing’s first, blanch the almonds. This will only take about a minute or two.
  2. Skin the almonds. After you blanch the almonds their outer skins should be soft and easy to peel. Squeezing the almonds a little will pretty much slip the skins right off.
  3. Let the almonds sit and dry for a few minutes. (Take some time to grab a snack from the pantry while you wait because cooking while hungry is always a bad idea.)
  4. Once the skinned almonds are dry, toast them lightly in a dry skillet. Lightly is the operative word here. (I blackened a few nuts the first go round.) The toasty almonds will have a slightly sweet fragrant aroma.
  5. Take your 1/3 cup uncooked rice and grind to to a fine powder. (I used my blender for this. Make sure you have a firm grip of the lid though, otherwise rice everywhere. A hard lesson learned.)
  6. Get a large bowl, jar or pitcher and add the rice powder, almonds, and cinnamon sticks (Mexican cinnamon is preferred. I crumble my sticks but you can leave them whole as well). Stir 3 cups of hot water into the mix and allow the mixture to cool at room temperature.
  7. After the mixture has cooled to room temperature, cover it and let stand overnight. DO NOT put it in the refrigerator. Let it stand covered at room temperature overnight.

Day 2: It’s a brand new day and you should be well rested, energized, and ready to tend to the horchata you started last night. Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten it already!

Day 2 Preparations:

  1. Transfer the mixture to a blender and add two cups cold water. Blend the mixture until it is nice and smooth. Depending on your blender it may take a few minutes. (I have a dinosaur it took me 8.)
  2. Strain the blended mixture slowly (slow is important) into a pitcher using a fine mesh strainer and 3 layers of cheesecloth. (What I did was line the strainer with the cheesecloths and use a spoon to sort of the big chunks that might block the flow of the draining liquid. This step, out of all the steps, is the most time consuming. Straining is a slow process. Very slow.)
  3. After you’ve done the arduous task of straining your horchata, add the 1/2 cup sugar syrup. (I take half a cup of sugar and a splash of water and dissolve it on the stove briefly to make a syrup.) Add a splash of vanilla extract to taste.
  4. Refrigerate the horchata.
  5. After the horchata has been sufficiently chilled it’s ready to drink. Serve over ice and garnish with cinnamon sticks or cinnamon powder (or both). And enjoy!

It’s customary (and delicious) cold, but I also warmed up a little on the stove the next day to have in the morning instead of tea and it was absolutely lovely.

Happy cooking!

-M.

A Note on Chronic Illness

Chronic illness sucks.

I think that goes without saying. Near constant aches and pains. Having to take numerous sick days (which aren’t nearly as fun as the ones you had as a child skipping school. No work and no pay makes Jack a broke boy.) Frequently cancelling plans because of flaring symptoms. The way just cleaning the house feels like a hike up Mount Everest.

One of the things about chronic illness is that it is tiring. (The phrase, “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired” comes to mind.) But it isn’t just tiring for the person suffering from the illness, it’s tiring for those around the person suffering from chronic illness.

See, it’s one thing if you come down with pneumonia or mono or some rare, exotic kind of bird flu that causes you to squawk uncontrollably for a month or so. People are generally sympathetic and offer their kindness, concern, and understanding when you can’t attend so-and-so’ party, or have to skip out on dinner, and generously overlook your incessant squawking. In these cases, the illness is temporary and once it’s over, life can go on as before and you are free to resume your usual social activities. There’s the expectation from those around you that yes, you are sick for now, but you won’t be later.

But what about the illnesses that don’t go away? The ones that linger over years, often worsening. The kinds of illnesses that are managed not cured. Enter chronic illness.

When you first get sick people are sympathetic, kind, patient, etc., at first. But when your illness doesn’t just up and go away, you find things begin to change. After a while people stop inviting you to things on the count of your frequent cancellations. You find your social circles no longer really seem to include you. And it’s not like it’s out of malice or anything. It’s just that people tend to feel like a third wheel. Your illness is almost its own entity, it’s there front and center when you can barely climb a flight of stairs without gasping for breath. It’s there when you hardly eat anything at dinner because your nausea decided to make yet another appearance. It’s there when you have to sit out most physical activities. Your illness just hangs there in the center of the room, the elephant no one wants to talk about when you’re there and everyone just feels uncomfortable. Things are easier when you’re not there.

Chronic illness is uncomfortable. It’s inconvenient. It’s tiring. Sometimes, it’s lonesome.

But it isn’t all bleak. There are good days for the bad days where your bed is your only safe haven. You learn that some friendships have expiration dates, and that’s okay. Some friendships you’ll find are long-lasting. The ones who don’t shy away from your illness or think it becomes you, who set a place for it at the table, even if it doesn’t eat.

And though I do enjoy being in pleasant company every now and again, I find I take pleasure in my own company these days. My quiet walks, sunning by my window, reading until I don’t know what day it is anymore. I can enjoy being alone without feeling alone. It wasn’t always like that.

If anything, chronic illness has made me more appreciative of the little things in life. Enjoying a good meal, conquering a flight of stairs without breaking a sweat, stay-at-home socks. Rainy days. Making the perfect cup of tea, the first time.

Chronic illness has its shares of ups and downs, (plenty of downs) but the downs make the ups even more enjoyable. And the ups make the downs that much more bearable.

And hell, it leaves you plenty of time to write.

-M

A start, A stash

I went through a couple of names trying to figure out what the name of this blog would be before settling on The Magpie Stash. I tried to find a name that was not incredibly pretentious sounding and yet was representative of me in some way. I can’t say whether I succeeded or not. But here we are.

I’ve been in a bit of a writing slump (and health slump–health landslide, really) which has resulted in me being very unmotivated to write. This blog will be an exercise in habitual writing. Because after all, you can’t really call yourself a writer if you don’t well, write.

So welcome to my stash of sorts. My nest of recipes, ramblings, bad advice, quasi-intellectual philosophizing, and occasional shiny objects.

Cheers,

— M.