It wasn’t long after I started working, after graduate school studying poetry and literature, that I started to feel the gnaw. Working was great, a paycheck was even greater. But I wasn’t writing much—just a couple of correspondences that took on terrific significance for me, or my journal, which was so stream of consciousness that it pained me to read what I’d written.
After work, I’d fire up my forbidden tabletop gas grill on the porch of my third story apartment in East Lansing, pull out the lamb chops, and start making a little fattoush salad for myself. With a glass of wine in hand, I put on the tapes (not even CD’s yet. Ouch.) of Bill Moyer’s Language of Life series. He was at a poetry festival, where poets read their work in the lilting, expectant tone that is unique to poetry reading.
Among them was a voice that sounded as though she had pulled up a chair next to me, shared a glass of wine, and spoke. I remember as much the sound of her voice as what she said, and I remember stopping still in my tracks as I walked the raw lamb chops on a plate out to the fire, and just stood there, listening. The gnaw, the desire to write and to do it well and to do it every day, reached up from within me like an irritated ulcer begging to be calmed, or a young bud thirsting for a sprinkle of water.
The poet was Naomi Shihab Nye. The Middle Easterners among us will recognize part of her name as one of ours. But before I knew her name, I knew her voice. It is a voice that says things like: Before you know kindness/as the deepest thing inside,/you must know sorrow/as the other deepest thing. You’re going to want to read, and listen to, the rest of that poem; here you go.
This was a voice that called me home. Did I set down my briefcase and head straight for my writing perch on Little Traverse Bay? It’s been a far more winding path than that. Turns out that along the path, I was not to avoid knowing sorrow, deeply. It is the gift of poets to look right into your soul, pull it up by its lapels and say in its face: now you listen here!
So when my gentle cousin Cathy wrote to tell me she would be hosting a small group from the poetry center at Michigan State and their visiting writer, Naomi Shihab Nye, this week in her mother’s writerly home for a bite to eat and an intimate conversation, I couldn’t help but sound a yawp right from the rooftop. A mezze would be the thing, all vegetarian. There was plenty of cooking: the spinach fatayar, the mujadara, the fattoush, the baklawa. It’s the sort of cooking that fills one with certain purpose.
But the main thing, as I went about my kitchen this week, was remembering. Remembering all of the poetry that was once my own form, and the professor who read my poems about kibbeh and grapeleaf rolls and told me how lucky I was to have such subject matter handed to me on a platter.
Remembering that day in my apartment when I was 25, and how just after that I left my job and moved to Chicago, planning to write. And how then the years strung out onto a chain like gold balls waiting for their pearl—a year of writing, which became a couple of weeks of writing, which became a day here and there of writing, which became thinking of writing but not writing much at all—to arrive.
Remembering, as I kept reading Naomi’s poem Kindness while I toasted the pita for fattoush and boiled the milk for laban, how good it was, and is, to feel a gnaw, and to have bowed down and picked up my sorrow and held it to my chest like a toiling child. And then—now—to know kindness, as the deepest thing inside.
Lebanese Fattoush Salad
Think of this bread salad as you might any other salad that includes croutons. Here the crouton is toasted pita bread, which is thin and crisp and soaks up the salad’s juices deliciously. I love fattoush with firm leaves of romaine, which stand up well to the bread, but you can make the salad of any leaf you like and add whatever vegetables you like. The lemony vinaigrette is so good, it may be the only dressing you ever eat again.
For the salad:
2 loaves thin pita bread
1 head of romaine lettuce, washed and chopped into large bite-sized pieces
1 cup tomatoes, coarsely chopped
1 cup sliced cucumber
1 small sweet onion, sliced
For the vinaigrette:
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice, or more to taste
3 tablespoons canola or light olive oil
½ teaspoon garlic powder
½ teaspoon kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon sumac
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Tear the pita bread into 2-inch pieces (using both layers of the pita per piece; this makes for a sturdier crouton). Spread the bread on a large sheet pan with a little space between each piece. Bake until golden brown, 3-5 minutes. Repeat with remaining bread.
In a large salad bowl, combine the romaine, tomatoes, cucumber, and onion.
Make the vinaigrette: combine the lemon juice, canola or olive oil, garlic powder, salt and pepper in a small bowl. Whisk until fully combined and emulsified. Dip a piece of lettuce in the vinaigrette, taste, and adjust seasoning. Add more lemon if you like a tart dressing.
Add half of the pita chips to the salad and combine. Pour the vinaigrette over the salad and toss. Place the remaining pita chips on top of the salad, and sprinkle liberally with sumac.
When the salad is finished, you’ll see juices at the bottom of the bowl. This is the best part! Sop up with more pita bread, and enjoy.
Find a PDF of this recipe here.