We Were Made for These Times

I’ve been reading it all: the action alerts and news about school closures, university classes moving online, botanical gardens locking their gates, heart-centered workshops being cancelled to ensure that we are not recklessly spreading the virus about which we still know so little and yet enough to warrant extreme caution. I’ve read it all and I can feel it: the whole world is bristling, its flanks made of spiny fear.

I, for one, have never experienced this kind of shared, communal fear in my adult life.

I’ve experienced other forms of terror that can make a grown man, someone’s father, weep in the street and drop his hat like an afterthought, letting it roll into angry traffic.

As a child and a young adult in ex-Yugoslavia, I lived so close to the civil war, I could feel its shallow breath on the back of my neck. Thousands of boys only a few years older than myself got drafted and returned home after months on the battlefield, either struck dumb by PTSD or in a coffin.

I lived through the economic sanctions and abject poverty, with no access to the basic necessities such as electricity, gas for cooking, fuel, oil, flour, salt. The whole world hated us, and we didn’t like ourselves much either. We couldn’t fly anywhere for years. There were times when we had to wipe our asses with newspapers (yes, toilet paper was a hot commodity back then, too). My family and I, and millions of our neighbors and compatriots, lived day after day with air raids and civil defense sirens painfully stapled into the bruised skin of our lives.

If one were to create a soundtrack for those times, it would have to include the high-pitched wailing of sirens warning us to go seek shelter, the way meerkats squeal and bark to tell their brethren to run for their lives, to hide. Twenty one years later, I still shudder when an airplane flies low over the Wasatch mountains. My body still remembers.

It all began in March, the month named after Mars, the Roman god of war. March is hard for me.

Day after day we would feel the earth shake beneath our feet as bombs were dropped all over our already extremely shitty lives. I remember the day I watched a giant, black mushroom cloud form on the horizon across the rivers Sava and Danube, like a putrid cosmic fart. Seconds before, we heard the NATO planes approaching, panting like Triassic beasts. In the middle of the day on April 21, 1999, they bombed the Usce Towers, which was squatting like Jabba the Hutt right beyond the water.

This is what I remember: It was a gorgeous, sunny day, the sky a ridiculous, cartoonish blue. Me and dozens of other people were out in the sun, exhausted from hiding and hoarding and barely surviving, many of us wearing T-shirts with red or black targets on them, wielding humor like a weapon. Our form of resistance was both genius and utterly insane: we fought the NATO bombers the only way we could: by strolling in the park and eating expired ice cream while they bombed the shit out of us. Sheer spite was the cheapest, most easily accessible food in those days.

This is what I remember, too: I was holding a bag of ripe, blood-red strawberries which I bought from a farmer at the green market earlier that day, a man brazen and crazy enough to brave the dangers of open roads with his sweet crop.

We all looked up at the rumble of bomber planes coming closer, immediately followed by the earth-shattering sound of explosion, but none of us ran for cover. We just stood there, arms heavy and limp, watching it all unfold in front of us, like a strange movie of our implausible lives.

But, the thing is, you adjust to abnormal circumstances. You have to, to survive and to keep whatever is left of your sanity.

Now, as an adult with young kids of my own, I’m recognizing some of the signs of things falling apart in the face of uncertainty, and it’s a sight that fills me with remnants of my old friend Fear. It’s like upsetting long-settled dust.

“Here you are again, Fear,” I find myself thinking, many times a day. This fear, it has a smell. It smells like overripe strawberries.

I thought this kind of unease went the way of dissolving mushroom clouds, but it turns out that it’s still alive and well, in me.

Those were difficult times and these are as well. A different kind of difficult, but difficult nonetheless.

But here’s the thing: we are not unprepared. As my dear teacher, Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés says, “Do not lose heart. We were made for these times.”

So I’ll tell you what I wish someone told me twenty one years ago, back in March of 1999, before the first NATO bomb ever touched the ground of the only home I knew, and cracked it open, like a wound:

I know that you, Dear One, posses resilience beyond your wildest dreams. Your very presence on this Earth is the evidence of your ancestors’ survival. You already have all the tools you need to stay alive and thrive, neatly tucked into the matrix of your cells. These tools are your special form of magic, waiting like pale green bulbs in the soil, to be awakened into life, at the mere whisper of the West Wind. You don’t need to do anything to claim this magic, but acknowledge that it’s here for you, should you need it. And you will.

But for now, all you need to do is remember this: there is sun, there is moon, there are millions and trillions of stars above you. There is the vast, blue sky. There is cool water, down below. You are breathing. The earth is holding you in her lap like a beloved child that you are. Just keep making friends with your breath.

You already know what to do: follow the map folded tightly inside your bones. Ask yourself: “What did my ancestors do when they looked the Terrifying Unknown in the eye?” and trust your inner knowing for the answer.

Remember: You are never alone. Remember: Our best chance for survival, now and at all times, is to recognize our deep connection to everyone and everything around us, and to honor it. Remember: Everything but interconnectedness is an illusion of a fearful, grasping mind.

Do not forget: You and I, we were made for these times.

My Favorite Morning

A few years ago, I stumbled upon the following advice by the great Kurt Vonnegut:

“My Uncle Alex, who is up in Heaven now, one of the things he found objectionable about human beings was that they so rarely noticed it when times were sweet. We could be drinking lemonade in the shade of an apple tree in the summertime, and Uncle Alex would interrupt the conversation to say, ‘If this isn’t nice, what is?”

So I hope that you will do the same for the rest of your lives. When things are going sweetly and peacefully, please pause a moment, and then say out loud, ‘If this isn’t nice, what is?’”

I’ve been practicing this diligently and it did me much good.

“If sitting in the shade of this tree, looking at this giant Utah sky isn’t nice, I don’t know what is,” I would say.

“If snuggling with my babies in bed and feeling their sweet breath on my face isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.”

But I began to feel that “nice” just wasn’t enough sometimes, especially on those days when the world weighs heavily on my shoulders and getting out of bed, getting dressed, and putting my mask on is just too damn hard. On those days, nothing seems particularly nice to me.

But then I read a life-changing Facebook post (yes, such things do exist) by the marvelous and brilliant Dave Rock and I felt like I was given another chance at life, an opportunity to recast some of my daily villains as heroes of sorts. I was shown a not-so-secret path into recognizing our best life when it comes rushing towards us, and I threw myself onto it.

Dave Rock says: “The Favourite Game is, well, my favourite game. […] I walk around saying everything and anything I see, hear, smell, touch, think or feel is my favourite. “You’re my favourite body. You’re my favourite life. You’re my favourite traffic-jam, you’re my favourite stranger, you’re my favourite trash, you’re my favourite sun breaking through the clouds, you’re my favourite stiff breeze, you’re my favourite horizon.”

My favorite Dave (of http://www.flowspeaking.com) also says: “By acting unconditionally delighted by life for long enough we become so. This works just like power-poses and smiling meditation. It’s often easier to change our bodies than to change our minds. And changing our bodies changes how we think and feel. The trick is zero pressure, but total energy. We’re never bypassing other emotions, or self-rejecting, just welcoming delight in. You’re inviting a shift, not making it happen. Millions of years of evolution can do their job fine without our inner control freak stepping in.”

So, let me introduce you to this, my favorite morning. My, hands down, favorite snow ever. My favorite herd of deer leaving piles of my favorite deer poop in my favorite, unkempt backyard. My favorite anxiety that no one will care to read what I have to say. My favorite phobia of leaving the house. My favorite contradictory combo of desires: hide, rolled-up in a blanket like a still warm croissant AND also be seen out in the brisk morning world.

My girls and I got to meet our favorite grumpy early-morning driver and our favorite angry tailgater, but we also saw our favorite whale weather vane and our favorite bright yellow front door. There are so many favorites to choose from.

After dropping off both of my kids at school, I looked in my favorite cracked compact mirror to make sure there was nothing stuck between my teeth (now that my braces are off, my favorite feature) and there it was: my favorite, cracked self, open like a book, a little damaged, sure, but also alive and breathing and ready to see delight in all the unexpected places. And you, dear friend reading this unedited morning ramble, you are my very favorite reader. Thank you.

Cooking with Ancestors: Uštipci

During the long, hungry years of Yugoslav wars that stretched through the 1990s, all but the most skilled war profiteers among us lived in abject poverty. Several rounds of international sanctions were imposed against Serbia and Montenegro, and most of us had to survive on less than $2 per day to feed and clothe an entire family.

There was never enough food to go around, so we would do what others have done before and after: come up with creative ways to fill our bellies.

My maternal Grandmother, Ljubinka, who was born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and had survived the ethnic cleansings and the famine of World War II, already knew all she needed to know: to survive the harshest of times and live on borrowed happiness, one must indulge in delicious fried things made with flour and fat. Add sugar to it, and there’s an abundance of quickly fried-up joy for you. So, nearly every day, my Grandmother would make uštipci, Serbian fried dough almost identical in taste and texture to frybread, which marks, perhaps more than anything else, the stubborn refusal of Native American peoples to die.

As unhealthy as these greasy morsels may be, they are a reminder of the ingenious forms of sustenance the oppressed can create when given next to nothing. Frybread, uštipci, bannock, puri, and similar “famine foods” are, perhaps, the greatest symbols of survival and resilience when those in power wish you dead and you disappoint them by staying alive. This is why many peoples who have war, genocide, and (post)colonialism in common, have their own versions of fried dough dishes that have kept them alive for generations, against all reasonable odds.

There’s many a Grandmother who still remembers long winters when dead birds fell from the skies like unwanted gifts and their own elders made them smile by making a feast out of destitution.

When I make uštipci, it’s usually in wintertide. I let the sleek dough slide off my spoon and into hot oil and I think of my ancestors who carried the memory of this recipe to me in their cells and on their tongues, like tight bundles with family heirlooms tucked inside.

I am in deep gratitude for their stubborn surviving that lead to me making uštipci for my family in my own sunny kitchen today, all the way across the ocean in this strange and beautiful Salty City I now call home.

What are your stories of ancestral survival? I know you have them. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t be here and neither would I.

Uštipci recipe (Vegan):

Ingredients:

  • 1.5lbs flour
  • 2 cups warm water
  • 1 packet of dry yeast (0.25oz)
  • 1 teaspoon salt (or more, if you like saltier dough)
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • Optional: 1 tablespoon brandy
  • Optional for sweet version of uštipci:
  • Some grated lemon peel
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract

Method:

Sift flour and add salt (and grated lemon peel, too, if you’re using it). Place in a mixing bowl and add dry yeast, sugar, and warm water. Cover the bowl with a dishcloth and put in a warm spot for 15-20 minutes, to let the yeast rise.

Pour in the brandy and mix all the ingredients well with a spatula (don’t use an electric mixer). Continue mixing with a spatula for 5 minutes, until thick, sticky dough forms. You’ll know that the dough is ready if you see air bubbles forming across it. That’s a sure sign that your uštipci will be light and airy, just like Grandma’s.

Cover the mixing bowl with a dishcloth and let the dough “rest” in a warm place for another 15-20 minutes, until it doubles in size.

Heat about 1 inch of oil (my favorite frying oil is sunflower oil, but anything neutral in taste will do) in a deep cast iron skillet or heavy saucepan. The oil should be heated to about 350 F. One way to test the hotness of the oil is to dip the handle end of a wooden spoon in it. The oil will bubble around it when it’s ready.

Use a metal tablespoon dipped in hot water to place the dough in the hot oil. Dipping your spoon in hot water first helps prevent the dough from sticking to it. You’ll notice that your uštipci will rise as you fry them. Fry each for a couple of minutes on each side.

Once ready, place uštipci on a paper towel to soak up the extra oil. Serve warm with white cheese (e.g., feta or goat cheese), sour cream, cream cheese, or fruit preserves.