california life nostalgia travels

On the Cusp

15 October 2008


[On Skye, October 2003.]

I always think about Scotland in October. Five years ago tonight I was perched on a cliff above the Atlantic Ocean watching the sun slide down into the sea while the hills and rocks of Skye spread around me. I’m turning 25 tomorrow, I thought. That seems old somehow — or, rather, old-ish. Sheep moved slowly through the green grass down below and it wasn’t too cold; Jolin and Susan, the friends we were visiting, said fall that year was unseasonably dry and warm. But even in the rain I still would have been glad to be there.

What little I know of my great-grandmother is that she was born outside of Edinburgh, in Perth. The old house might still be standing, though she left for America when she was a teenager; I didn’t see it. There’s no record of her going through Ellis Island; unlike my Greek grandfather, who is listed on one of the myriad of ship’s manifests from the 1920s, she didn’t travel steerage and thus avoided the crowds as she came into New York. While I may more physically resemble the Mediterranean side of the family — and certainly carry a Greek name — going to the U.K. meant connecting with another part of my heritage. Scotland feels like home to me in an entirely different way than Greece, but still: it’s home. Somewhere between my first cream scone and my last cup of milky tea I stumbled across a part of myself I didn’t even know was missing. It’s only been five years since I’ve been there, but it’s been five years. Sometimes I miss it every day.

On my twenty-fifth birthday, I waked early to sun and clear skies, beans on toast and tea, and saw a sea eagle from the kitchen window — a good omen. The rest of the day was spent hiking through deserted fields out to the ocean, listening to the Eagles as we careened around one-laned island roads (avoiding the sheep whenever possible), getting a bit of a sun burn, talking about how similar Scotland is to Northern California with a potter who’d lived in Mendocino, having a dram of whisky before dinner in a warm sitting room, and chasing an 18-year-old dog who escaped as we set off for ‘home’ for the night. It was, truly, all I could ever have asked for.

I always think about birthdays past when I’m on the cusp of another one. Five years ago I came back from that amazing trip to the U.K. and cooked a belated birthday dinner: pumpkin-leek soup, cranberry sauce, potato pie. Was there a cake? I can’t remember. I found heather beer at the Whole Foods on P Street (the only time I ever did find it there), bought a bottle of Talisker, and invited all my friends over. We toasted to fall, and birthdays, and tucked in.

Four years ago I fell asleep the night before my birthday in a sprawling bed-and-breakfast in Purcellville, Virginia, near my brother’s farm and where he’d put me up as my present. The next day I came back to the city to — surprise! — cook a feast: roasted tomato and garlic soup, a huge pot of vegetable risotto, spinach salad layered with pomegranate seeds and almonds, an opera cake. I laid the table carefully and plated cheeses and opened bottles of champagne. It was one of those warm fall weekends in DC — I came home from the bar where my friends had taken me out a few nights earlier and tipsily remarked on how lovely the air felt — and we sat long around the table drinking wine and giggling in the way only old friends can.

I can’t remember what I did three years ago — I probably went for a long run because I was training for a marathon and then to the beach — and two years ago I went for lunch at the Slanted Door. Last year I took my visiting friend to Nopa and woke up early the next morning to go for a rainy walk on Stinson Beach. I didn’t cook dinner, but I baked a lot of cake for a party.

Not surprisingly, I usually remember my birthdays through food.


[Near Wildcat, July 2008.]

Tomorrow I turn 30. It’s so easy to write it out like that, but to be honest with you, I’m quaking a little internally. How can I be thirty? I swear I’m not 20 yet, maybe not even ten. Everyone says life goes faster and faster as you get older and I’m starting understand the truth to that. Sometimes I want to catch an especially nice day by its heels and sit it down to tea, ply it with cookies, and entreat it to stretch out for just a few more hours. But since I can’t, and it won’t, I’m trying to appreciate all the little things even as time swirls by ever more quickly.

I think tomorrow might be a day like that. I’ve taken it off of work and plan to: get up early, drink a lot of coffee, go for a long hike with my dad, have dinner in the woods, drink some wine, listen to “The Works” (I’ve treated myself to it as a birthday present and wow. Yeah. Go get it, immediately, please), and go to bed early. This sounds so absolutely perfect to me I can hardly wait to wake up tomorrow morning, turning 30 or not.

The past six months have been a bit tumultuous at times — and I certainly underwent a sea-change this summer — but tonight, oh tonight, the last night of my twenties, I’m taking a deep breath and looking ahead. I wish for sun tomorrow, and whales off the coast (impossible, since they’ve probably headed south already, but it is my birthday after all, and a girl can dream). I wish for another year filled with good runs and even better food, more trips to see beloved friends, and some new writing assignments. I wish for a more peaceful year all round — for me and for the world — and that the markets settle down and steady.

I wish, too, for another sunset like the one I saw five years ago when the sea turned silvery and the last rays of light cast over its surface made a path off into forever. The world may pitch and lean sometimes — and I may try to avoid reading the headlines — but I know all will be well in the end. And even though I might not think I’m completely ready to step into another decade I am, and I can’t wait.

For all my October birthday friends (and to my birthday-sharer), as well as every single one of you, I offer this to-day — and every day. I know I’ve posted it before, but it’s always good to remember.

I would rather be ashes than dust! I would rather that my spark should burn out in a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled by dry-rot. I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet. The function of man is to live, not to exist. I shall not waste my days trying to prolong them. I shall use my time.
Jack London

  • Astrid 23 October 2008 at 11:49 am

    Happy belated birthday! I enjoyed reading this. The photo from Skye is breathtaking!

  • Toffeeapple 20 October 2008 at 4:25 am

    I panicked about my 30th too, but that was 32 years ago and I can tell you that it does get better and better. Happy belated birthday! :-)

  • robin // caviar and codfish 16 October 2008 at 11:03 am

    Happy Birthday!!

    Your 25th sounded wonderful (and that photo is outstanding!) and your 30th sounds like serenity. Jim just told me that he would like to spend his 25th (this Feb) with a bottle of Talisker too!

    How you enjoyed your day. Many, many wishes for happy, tulmult-free times this coming year!

  • EB 16 October 2008 at 8:10 am

    Wow. What a beautiful post. Welcome to your 30’s. I promise they really are great (all 2 years of them I’ve had so far makes me an expert :)

  • dawn 16 October 2008 at 7:29 am

    Happy, Happy 30th Birthday, Beautiful Lady! I hope that you will enjoy your thirties as much as I have been – it really is a great time. I wish you love, and good eating. XOXO, D

  • Amanda 15 October 2008 at 6:50 pm

    Happy Happy birthday! If I could be in SF to buy you a cupcake, I totally would. Maybe I could fed-ex one to you! I hope you spend the day celebrating you and doing all the things you love. That’s what I love about birthdays. It’s all about you :) And you don’t have to feel guilty about it at all!

  • jessica, who's also 30 now 15 October 2008 at 6:27 pm

    i wish for whales for you, too!! also cake. also coffee ;)
    happy birthday, lil nicpsir! happy 30! we’re *such* meteors. like, i can’t even deal. hearts! <3 txt me!

  • justrun 15 October 2008 at 5:26 pm

    If ever there were a time to say “congratulations” to someone on making so many memories, now would be it.
    Happy Birthday! I hear it just keeps getting better, too! ;)