If I were to have a robot self, I would describe it something like this:
A satellite dish, with roots, and a nuclear reactor in the middle, plus two hands and a body with which to express the product of said reaction. And when it comes to writing, I feel like one has to have a satellite dish. If I’m not out there, wide open, taking in new stuff every day, then everything I create takes on a stagnancy that feels like a shrunken sweater. Like a record on repeat. During times when I don’t feel like going out into the world, I find that my creativity grinds to a halt too. It’s this strange balance of having to experience and give as much energy as possible in order to receive. To empty the vessel before it can be filled.
The past week I’ve been over tired, slightly grouchy, achy, fighting off this respiratory infection that’s been circulating around (and had hit everyone BUT me) and not really in the mood to go out and do anything. Even more than that, I’ll admit, I’m envious of all you folks who have a winter. Butter emailed me photos of her truck blanketed in snow and I felt a twinge of despair that we don’t really have that here. Last week it was eighty degrees, and while, come March I’ll be out hiking and y’all snow-dwellers will be cursing me, right now, it’s Winter, and I want it to feel like it. Winter is the time to rest, relax, recharge, and curl up on the couch with hot chocolate and a good book, and when it’s 80 degrees and sunny, it really doesn’t feel like you’re supposed to be resting much.
LA is dry at the best of times. We’re on the edge between a big desert and a big salty ocean, and on my side of town it gets hot and dusty quite quickly. Respiratory infections that come around will lodge deep in the lungs but never really graduate past a dry splutter. We don’t get thick wet cold mucus here, we get green and yellow and bright eyes and red tongues and hard to hack up. Everything gets dried up. Like the cogs in my robot mechanics aren’t working properly. Last night I was staring forlornly at a blinking cursor on a blank screen, and then I made this sad little dry cough. I thought it was just a bit of dust or something but a minute later it happened again. And then another one. And then the sneezing started. And before I knew it, within the space of a couple of hours, I had graduated from grouchy and tired to sick.
To be honest, I was relieved. There’s nothing worse than being a creative robot and feeling like your cogs and mechanics aren’t working properly. To have hands that are supposed to be weaving and creating that just barely splutter to life and then die down. To be sick, after all the horrible terrible thoughts of it being gone forever (melodrama is my middle name) was a welcome relief. I’ll take achy coughy dried out stuck sinuses over gone forever any day.
When I first moved into this house, I did a few things that my neighbours found strange. The first was that I pulled out all the ornamental plants beside my kitchen door. The second was that I scattered the plot with seeds and forgot about it. The third was that, when the seeds started sprouting into weeds, I refused to do anything about it except eat them from time to time. One of the weeds that proliferates out back is hollyhock. Pretty big purple flowers in the summer, and pretty big leaves the rest of the year, you can’t pick plants in the mallow family without knowing immediately how they work in the body, because they’re slimy. Seriously slimy. They moisten things like nobody’s business, from dried out lungs to dried out intestines to burning urinary tracts. I went out last night, under the rising moon, and started picking mallow leaves, and as I did, I realised that they, too, have big satellite dishes that wave around in the night sky like they’re searching for transmission of some kind.
I thought about these big satellite leaves with their faces turned to the stars and I looked up to see this big moon rising into the sky. Funny, you know, that in such a yang-y city, here are these little plants with their faces turned up, soaking in the night and it occurred to me that this moment was as yin as it might get in LA. Yin of the darkness and contraction and moistness and death. Yin of the feminine figure and the earthy texture and the hand that gives life and the other hand that takes it. Yin of the stillness that gives birth to movement and the deep dark forests that have been there for thousands of years. In the middle of a city that is focused on youth and movement, and where (to mirror this) we don’t even have a proper winter (our plants don’t even get old- they just keep flowering and producing) I’ll take my yin moments as I can get them, especially when it’s sitting in the mud surrounded by big hollyhock leaves with the full moon shining down onto our big satellite dish faces. Smiles reflecting the sunlight, absorbing all that we can.
I bring in my haul of leaves and set about to making a dish I read about in Paula Wolfert’s The Food of Morocco. If you’re ever going to get a Moroccan cookery book, let it be this one. The pictures alone will make you want to sell your children in exchange for plane tickets to Tangiers. The moistening effect of mallow plants is immediately noticeable. Within a few minutes of eating it everything feels looser, less painful and dried out. Within a few minutes of eating it, hot, achy restlessness is replaced by cool moon-struck rest. I had the same again for lunch today.
A note on this dish: it’s not attractive. You’ll have to pawn it off on people at first, insisting that they try it and then because of good manners they will feel forced to do so even though words like ‘weed’ and ‘wild’ might scare them a bit. But it’s ok because after that first bite they won’t be able to stop eating it and you will be happy.
A note on mallows: I don’t think you can find them in grocery stores, but come spring, you can find them in gardens and along roadsides. You can use hollyhock (alcea), or mallow (malva). They’re all used pretty much interchangeably in herbalism, so I don’t see why they’d be different in cooking.
Moroccan mallow salad
Adapted from The Food of Morocco
1lb wild greens
1 cup parsley
3 garlic cloves (peeled, but not chopped)
1/2 cup cilantro
1/4 tsp salt (or to taste)
1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 tsp paprika
1/4 tsp cayenne
1/2 tsp ground cumin
juice of 1 lemon
Steam the greens, garlic, parsley and cilantro for ten minutes, until they’re definitely cooked but still bright green. Then, put them in the blender with the rest of the ingredients, and blend on high until they’re a thick green paste similar to the texture of ‘whipped potatoes’ as Paula says. Taste, add more salt if necessary. Refrigerate until cool and serve.