I pull on the pair of dilapidated work jeans I bought ten years ago– the ones that used to be loose. I run my fingers through my hair, feeling the wiry sprouts of grey in my overgrown roots. I find an old sweatshirt– the threadbare one with The Cat in the Hat grinning widely over my chest, and slide it on top of my faded wife beater t-shirt. Today isn’t about glamour. Today is about moving four cubic yards of soil from the front of our house where it was delivered to the flower beds Francis built in the backyard. This is a good job for me right now- mindless exertion. Today I will lose myself in my physical tenacity. I will feel my muscles scream, and my joints squeak, but my perception of powerlessness over the state of the world and my under-employment will fade away.
Get this from here to there. Grunt. Release. Howl. Exhale.
As my body moves, my mind dances through my brain’s passageways and discovers parcels– unpacking in no particular order.
I think of my first job in Portland that I booked a few months after moving here. How I drove home that night, giddy from one of the most successful gigs of my life, and realized that I didn’t have to use the GPS to find my way back. It had finally become second nature to me. I knew where home was. And then I opened the door to find my husband, dog, and cat waiting for me and I bored them senseless with my triumphant catering stories.
Then I think of yesterday morning when I sent reminders to two clients that hadn’t yet chosen menus for parties that were quickly approaching. A brunch and a cocktail party. Both suddenly canceled. Well, not canceled but postponed — waiting for a better time. “A better time.” Yeah, we’re all waiting for a better time.
Which leads me to think of the POTUS Orangeutan and I’m so scared and rageful that I carry twice the load in half the time. My shovel forcefully dives into the mound of dirt with a scrapey swoosh; my biceps are flexing, glutes pulsating, fingernails brown with earth– we shall overcome.
The soil slips into the finger jointed corners of our cedar boxes, and I suddenly feel overpowered by optimism. I will sow life into these boxes. In tidy rows, I will cultivate enthusiastic seedlings. Tomatoes and beans and lettuces and basils and peppers and peas and, and, and… They don’t know about war; they don’t care about unemployment. They need things I can give them—water and fertilizer and attention. I can do this, even though I’ve had only moderate success as a gardener in the past. I look at this bed of opportunity and I know I can help something grow and change. I feel no impotence. I feel empowerment. This small plat is the entire world for a few minutes.
More than a couple friends have mentioned Mercury’s retrograde which is occurring from April 9th to May 3rd. This year’s retrograde feels particularly cataclysmic– like I’m having full-blown mercury poisoning. I’m between a rock and a hard place about assigning planetary blame to a slow month in catering, but it feels better than beating myself up. The sourness I feel is more than just my light work load. Most people I talk to are experiencing the same sensation. Come on, May 3rd!
I top the last shovelful of earth into the planter bed and rub aching my lower back. It’s small, this sanguine patch of time, because soon I will be staring at my computer to figure out how to work the SEO on Google or bid on Thumbtack jobs that will never come to fruition, but I am altered now. I am refreshed. I am connected a little deeper to the small delicious stuff of life.
Maybe I’ll splurge on one more task. Something bright and springish. How’s about an almond cake with rhubarb and cardamom? Yeah, that’s just the thing. I think I’ll call it Optimism Cake.
Rhubarb and Cardamom
Serves 8-10, depending on your slice size
- 1 ½ pounds rhubarb stalks, trimmed
- 3 tablespoons sugar plus ¾ cup sugar, separated
- 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature, plus more for pan
- 1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
- ¾ cup blanched almonds
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- ½ teaspoon cardamom
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon almond extract
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- ½ vanilla bean, split lengthwise
- 2 large eggs
- ¼ cup plain yogurt
- 2 tablespoons slivered almonds
- Powdered sugar to decorate
- Preheat oven to 350°. Butter a 9-inch springform pan and dust with flour, tapping out excess.
- Take one of the stalks of rhubarb and slice it into quarters lengthwise and then into 2-inch sticks. Reserve for later.
- Slice rhubarb in half lengthwise (quarter if very large) and cut into ½” pieces. Place into a large bowl and sprinkle with 3 tablespoons of sugar. Let rhubarb sit in the sugar (some juice will come out which is perfect) while you prepare the cake batter.
- Pulse flour, almonds, baking powder, and salt in a food processor until almonds are finely ground (texture should be sandy). Add the cardamom and cinnamon and pulse for a second.
- Place 1 cup butter and ¾ cup sugar into a mixer bowl and beat with the paddle until it becomes light and fluffy. Scrape the seeds from vanilla bean and add them to the butter-sugar; reserve pod for another use. Continue to beat until very fluffy. Add eggs, one at a time, beating to blend first egg before adding the other. Add almond extract and vanilla extract. Beat until mixture is pale and fluffy, another 4 minutes.
- Reduce speed to low and gradually add dry ingredients and the yogurt, switching between the two. Beat, scraping down the sides of bowl as needed, just to combine (batter will be very thick).
- Scrape batter into the rhubarb and fold until thoroughly incorporated. Smooth batter and arrange long reserved sticks of rhubarb over top; sprinkle with almond slivers.
- Place tart pan on a large rimmed baking sheet and bake, rotating once, until cake is golden brown and rhubarb on top is soft and beginning to brown, 70–80 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack and let cake cool before removing from pan.
- Sprinkle with sugar and feel optimistic immediately.
Here’s me on Afternoon Live on KATU making it!