Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Process and Pesto.

Rock Creek Park. Valley Trail, Washington, DC.
And just like that, it's autumn. Summer in the District was brutally hot and (as our beloved local weather gang calls it) juicy, and so it is with enormous relief that the cooler weather has arrived. I'm back in my running shoes most mornings. We pack apples and layers to take on city and woodsy walks. My favorite beers come back onto local tap lists (and into our own brewing queue), and tea is always at my side.

With the change in the air comes a boost in my writing. My dissertation traces the twenty-year history of the United Nation's work in one small area. Beyond the usual library work, It involves travel near and far, finding finding funding for such travel, archival access and what will likely be a couple of hundred interviews. Never mind all the writing. Deciding where to start, since August when my proposal was approved, has been daunting. While the narrative interests me, the immensity of a project whose final value might be considered esoteric at best, has been discouraging.

When I fall into writing paralysis, that last bit is usually the cause. Why spend years working on a project that few will likely read, whose importance is rather limited, whose result will be a degree that I am only 60% confident that I will professionally need (and even then not for another decade or two). Never mind that I am not spending these months in a nice job and professional community, not making money that will further our own goals of paying off loans, saving for a home and yearly travel abroad. When I think about it that way, what a waste. I should walk away. And usually tell Christopher as much quarterly over some anguished supper.

When I start to think about what I'd want to do instead, though, my answer is always to move forward with my writing. In my past as a researcher and advisor, it is writing - the clear, creative and helpful process of conveying and convincing - that always excites me most, whether my own (telling the story of a community in Uganda surviving famine and war, or explaining why labor disputes in Cambodia tends to resolve more easily than conflict over land), or mentoring my students to tell their own stories more personally and effectively in their own writing. Nothing gives me more professional pleasure.

Photo and text from Robyn Davidson's article on traveling with India's Rabari in the September 1993 issue of National Geographic. Photo by Dilip Mehta. For stellar travel writing, look for Davidson's Tracks and Desert Places.
When I think about my dissertation in that way - as getting to my desk everyday, as telling a story, as crafting my words - and make space for this blogging and some creative work as well, the dissertation project and the narrative I am developing there takes on more value. When doubt creeps in, I spend my morning with old National Geographic magazines, with the latest New Yorker, with whatever book I'm currently consuming or on blogs whose authors' voices I particularly admire. Thinking not just about a daunting task, but about process, is beginning to help. Each day I'm reminded that I'm working on a craft, a story and a profession, as well as on a thesis that will satisfy my committee one day.

Now that a wickedly hot summer has given way to a temperate fall, I feel my writing and focus begin to settle as well. It's welcome.

And on that note, I leave you with a fall favorite around here: kale pesto with a garlicky, walnutty bite.

Heidi Swanson is a household name around here, and when reaching for a cookbook or scanning a blog in planning for supper, it is always Heidi's that we go to. Her recipes are wholesome, creative, nourishing and delicious. Not a dud in the bunch.

This pesto is inspired by her winter pasta recipe, but uses fewer ingredients, zero stovetop time and comes with a bit of a bite. We serve it on pasta and on pizza, either as the sauce base or in globs (my preferred method). Christopher likes it on crackers. Either way, a marvelous way to get your kale with a raw garlic edge. Try it and serve it to friends and lovers from whom you don't mind potent kisses.

Kale pesto
based on Heidi Swanson's recipe for Winter Pasta

1 bunch of kale (I prefer lacinato, but use what you've got)
1/3 cup walnuts
1/3 cup parmesan cheese
3-4 cloves garlic
Olive oil (enough to reach desired consistency)
A splash of lemon juice (optional)
Salt and pepper to taste

De-stem and rinse/dry the kale, and put the leaves in your food processor. Add the walnuts, parmesan and garlic. Puree.

With the machine running, add the olive oil, checking as you go for consistency. You'll probably use 1/3-1/2 cups. If desired, add the lemon juice at this point.

Salt and pepper to taste.

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