A creamy and satisfying rice dish topped with portobello and shiitake mushrooms sautéed in garlic, butter, and balsamic vinegar. A luxurious mushroom risotto that is wonderful for dinner and any special occasion.
Sometimes, where I live, it's as if the entire landscape comes to a sudden agreement that the seasons must change. Almost like a light switch. Summer is switched off to be replaced by brisk, cold mornings blanketed by a grey sky and drizzly rain allowing the leaves as they change into their red and golden colors to be all the more brilliant against their dreary canvas. For me, the changing of the seasons this year has felt more accentuated than ever with the passing of my dearest friend. (You can read about Shasta here and here).
It was the end of August since her and I were last together savoring life's precious moments. The end of summer.
And just like the changing of the seasons in nature, I have felt a significant shift and change in this season of life. A season of deep, penetrating grief. The kind of grief that digs down deep in your heart and soul and decides to take up residence leaving you to wonder if it's just visiting for a short while or if it's putting down some kind of new and more permanent roots. This kind of grief is strange to me. I've experienced loss and heartache in the past. And those times were hard too. But occasionally the curveball life throws at us hits with a bit more force.
I know I'm not the only one who's recently been hit by that curveball. All I have to do is turn on the news. And really, I don't even need to do that. Extended conversations with various friends will quickly reveal that they too have recently experienced great loss and heartache. It's something that happens to all of us at one time or another. But the way it plays out for each one of us takes us down a path that is uniquely our own.
Grief is a funny thing. Not funny as in let's all have a good laugh. Funny in the sense that it feels unpredictable. One minute you find yourself thinking that you may have convinced yourself that you're okay only to discover minutes later when face to face with someone asking "How are you doing?" that you suddenly realize you don't actually know how to answer that. Do I tell them I'm fine because that's our normative cultural response or do they really want to know how I'm doing? Do they know I've recently experienced great loss and if so, why are they asking how I'm doing? Shouldn't it be obvious?
But I know that's not entirely fair. While some of us are wading through the murky waters of grief, the people around us are just trying to figure out how they can come alongside us and pull us out of the murk. And sometimes knowing how to do that in a way that conveys thoughtfulness, sensitivity, and tact is incredibly difficult and dependent on the type of loss or hardship the person is experiencing.
Earlier this year I read a book called There is No Good Card For This: What To Say and Do When Life is Scary, Awful and Unfair to People You Love (you can find it here). I was finding myself in more and more situations where those around me were going through some incredibly challenging times. I felt like I needed more tools in my tool belt to help me with how to come alongside those experiencing deep grief and hardship than simply asking how they were doing with the hopes that that was sufficient, or even appropriate. I'm sure there are a number of books that give guidance in how to enter into those harder moments of life with people we care about, but I found that particular book to be helpful. It's worth a read, even if you're one of the talented few that has a grasp on how to relate to others in life's more difficult moments.
Grieving is a process. A process that can take a lot longer than one might anticipate. And I'm letting myself be okay with that. I don't have to rush it, or ignore it, or pretend like it's not there. If I tried to do any of those things, my guess is that it would probably just show up later anyway asking to be dealt with.
Grief is also an appetite thief. Which for someone who enjoys all things food, it feels weird when food doesn't sound good. But there are days when my feet don't want to go into the kitchen and my head can't grasp what should be cooked for dinner. Thai food take-out, boxed mac 'n cheese, and pancakes for dinner have been making more regular appearances in our home since August. And for now, that's okay too. Especially since I have kids who never seem tire of breakfast for dinner or fluorescent orange pasta.
But this last week, I felt a small nudging to get into the kitchen and cook something. Perhaps it was my friend Shasta whispering from Heaven urging me to get up and do what I love - to create something tasty in the kitchen.
One afternoon in the final weeks before Shasta passed away, when we both came to the realization that time left had become way too short, she told me she was worried about leaving me behind. I didn't ask her why. I think maybe I wasn't ready to hear why. Maybe she worried because she knew I was a feeler. I feel things deeply and I'm fiercely committed to my friendships and I would feel her absence in the same way as if I'd been hit by an avalanche. And maybe it was because she didn't want her absence to impact my desire (or my appetite) to create, and engage, and share in the sweet things of life, like delicious food. She loved tasty food and she loved bringing people together with food, which she knew I loved too. I don't really know why she said what she did that day. But I told her not to worry. I would be okay. It would just take time that would inevitably be filled with a whole lot of emotions and take-out food and pancakes. I'm passing on the fluorescent pasta though.
The last meal I cooked for my friend was risotto. Shasta called me one day and had decided that in spite of all the side effects of chemo she had suddenly developed an appetite for mushroom risotto. She wanted to know if I would come over and make her some. "Yes, of course, I'll be right over."
Risotto (pronounce it like -> ree-zoht-toe) is an Italian dish of rice cooked slowly and patiently in stock until it becomes creamy and luxurious and then you can basically add any vegetable or meat additions to it that you like. Shasta and I adopted risotto as a dish of our own during our stint in Italy together and after moving back to the States it was a meal we regularly continued to share.
Risotto is one of those meals that's not to be rushed. You break open a bottle of wine, partly to cook with it and then mostly to drink. Then you enter into and enjoy the process that the arborio rice (a type of rice specifically used for risotto) undergoes as it cooks, following a pattern of adding a little stock to the rice, stirring it regularly, then allowing it to soak up the liquid, then adding more stock, stirring, and repeating. It's a dish that forces you to slow down and enjoy the moment, the conversation, and the company.
When I felt that urge last week to cook again, my appetite was for risotto. Mushroom risotto. My feet took me back to the kitchen, I popped open a bottle of wine, and began the pattern of adding, stirring, and repeating. My house was quiet as the kids and hubby had yet to return home from their outing. It was in those moments of solitude, I patiently cooked, I allowed myself to reflect on sweet memories with my dear friend, I listened to old voicemails from her on speaker phone, and I permitted myself to continue through the process of grief while also giving thanks for the many blessings and opportunities of having had such a beautiful friendship.
When my husband and kids finally returned home, we sat down together giving thanks over a tasty dinner and simply enjoyed the moment, the conversation, and the love of those most precious beside us.
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