Wednesday, 18 March 2015 | 46 comments

Nigella sativa

You’re lying on your back on the hard floor of an empty house. The ancient furnace in the basement rumbles to life. It’s an unfamiliar noise, and the sound reverberating off the walls is disconcerting. Kind of like the basement is about to explode. Before you know it, it’ll be comforting, Ben told you. Right.

Yesterday, you signed papers to make the house yours. Yours, second person plural. Well, yours in trust of the bank. Yours, asterisked with a very large debt that is meant to be paid off over a span of time longer than the years you have actually lived on the green earth.

When you first walked through the house, you liked it enough to walk through it again. The second time, you sneaked off to a corner of the seven acres and peed on it, like a dog, marking it. But the other morning, the papers signed, the wire transfer received, the realtor asked, “Aren’t you excited?” and you laughed, nervously.

Because you don’t really know what you are. 2015 has been a blur of work and travel and things like obtaining a mortgage in post-recession America, which are, by their very nature, nerve-wracking and second-guess inspiring and bang-your-head-against-a-wall-worthy. Not to mention the large party you’re supposed to be planning to celebrate your impending marriage to someone with whom you just purchased a house.

Yourself of ten years ago would not have believed that you’d be where you are right now, both figuratively and literally. She’d be pleased to know that all the nights she spent dreaming about going to faraway places were not silly; would be amazed to know that this year has had you on planes to Kabul and Accra and Bangkok in the span of two months. She would have laughed and probably stormed out of the room if you told her that, in the span of another two months, you will be marrying a particular person who used to ride the bus to middle school with her. She simply wouldn’t comprehend the fact that you really, really wish you could stay put for more than two weeks, and that your idea of a nice night right now would be staying in and drinking a Sierra Nevada while you paint the walls of your new house. White.

You sigh and pick up your phone from next to you and scroll through social media, because that’s what 21st century people do when they’re alone and deflated. Tara has posted a link to a cauliflower cake.

The cauliflower cake looks really, really good, and is from a cookbook by Yotam Ottolenghi, the Jerusalem-born British chef whose beautiful cooking has caused totally normal people everywhere to start buying strange things like nigella seeds online. You’d bet this recipe has them, too.

So you go to Amazon to order the nigella seeds. Amazon is confused because all you’ve been ordering lately are millions of tiny globe lights to string around the perimeter of a huge tent, or a thousand small clear votive candle holders. Don’t you want to order two hundred more cloth napkins? it asks you. Do you want to add nigella seeds to your registry? You are being bride-algorithmed. You wonder what you could order to break it. Snow tires?

Days later, the nigella seeds arrive. What the hell are nigella seeds, anyway? You don’t know. You buy two heads of cauliflower. You leave for Bangkok before you have time to unpack the kitchen, and the cauliflower cake doesn’t get made.

. . .

A week later, in Thailand, you run into an Afghan colleague. You went to Afghanistan for the first time in January, and while you didn’t get to go out much, you did get to eat. And your very favorite thing to eat was beautiful, freshly baked naan bread, pricked in a pattern with the tines of a fork. You remind him about the bread, and how you had it every morning with sweet tea, sprinkled in the middle with sesame and little aromatic black seeds. He tells you the word for the seeds in Dari. You Wikipedia it.

Oh. It turns out you know a lot about nigella seeds.

In your hotel room, you look up the cauliflower cake recipe again. You remember that Ben proposed to you in an Ottolenghi restaurant, a fancy night out, in London last year. You weren’t really sure you wanted to get engaged, but he pulled an airmail envelope out of his pocket, ripped it open, and dumped a little ring that was your mom’s out onto the table in front of you.

All these tenuous threads, connecting things that don’t even make sense: they comfort you. The ring and your mom and the chef and the sun rising over the only view you saw from your window in Kabul and the uncooked recipe and the pound of nigella seeds waiting on the counter of the house with the loud furnace that isn’t quite yet home.

They’re not much, but they’re something to hold onto. You weave them around your fingers as you stand an ocean away, as you round the next corner, as you make the next leap.

§ 46 responses to Nigella sativa

  • Sarah, your words give me so much hope, and so much to hold onto. Thank you.

  • Hmm, this is a beautiful piece of writing and makes my wondering, sometimes travel-tired heart feel cozy. Congrats on the house, too!

  • So beautifully written, Sarah. So authentic. This past year has been a whirlwind for us- buying a house, changing careers, reflecting on our relationship, wondering about the future. I can really feel your words. You have so many wonderful and exciting things ahead in your life, and it’s completely and totally okay to lie on the floor and let those moments and thoughts about those moments waft over you.

  • What can I possibly, possibly say. The only word that comes to mind is LOVE. Love. love. And see you soon. x

  • Shelagh

    Ah, how lovely. You make me dream.

  • Beautifully written. Congrats on the house! I just got married myself and am now starting the process of looking for a house. It’s a lot! Looking forward to the cauliflower cake.

  • This. This one.

  • Tia

    Emotions well within me.

  • So beautiful. It’s funny when you take a break from the breakneck speed of life to take stock and realize just what, precisely, your particular life is being made of. Congratulations on the house (I am similarly terrified/agog at our new mortgage) and on the impending wedding!

  • Marcia

    Your writing is truly a gift, Sarah, and so often– as today– it makes my eyes well up. Thank you for this. Best of all, you “gifted” me with this on my birthday. How did you know? :-)

  • june2

    Beautiful. I can’t stop thinking about “pound of nigella seeds on the counter”…One pound seems like a LOT, haha! I tried to imagine what recipes would take large quantities of nigella and of course, have no idea but then did remember that my sisters and I used to love Armenian String Cheese and so thanks to google made an amazing discovery: there are recipes for this and it is easy! Here’s the first one I found, in case you don’t have a plan for all those seeds! (I’d plant some, for sure)

  • Rachel

    I’ve made the recipe, it was surprisingly understated for an Ottolenghi recipe. It looked beautiful, but I was expecting more oomph…

  • What a great story, and I can see the house, the furnace, the restaurant. Flying around the world when all you want to do is be home cooking, baking, eating and drinking. Lovely story, really hit home.

  • Tom

    Another beauty of a post, I usually lurk here but I found this worthy of a head nod in agreement. I’ve recently bought a house with my girlfriend (well over a year ago but it feels that it is recent) we moved in and since then we have been doing it up, changing things and growing things in the garden for the kitchen. I planted garlic today and yesterday I planted my potatoes that I had chitted in the front window as it is south facing, all of this is overwhelming to me.

    My influences of life are here in front of me in this home, the fact that I had a woodburner installed in the living room which was so expensive for our budget but I had it installed as it reminded me of my parents, my home as a child and the life I want to live now. I worked so many shifts extra to afford it, the truth is it’s not been on as much as I thought it would but it is there, looking at me like a material memory.

    We are now thinking about upgrading our attic, to make a loft for a bedroom or maybe a living space – my brothers who work in construction will do it cheap, we will get the loan to do it and then pay it back over the time scale as we both earn extra money now from our busy jobs. Then we go away to Boston and NYC from our little city in England for 12 days, so much is happening at the moment, so much I have to be glad about but so much is happening and it freaks me out a little. Congratulations though, I found the signing my life away with a house fairly easy – the doing things in it has been the most joyful but also the toughest I feel like a fraud when I think about the attic, I think about the job I do in homelessness and the fact another room isn’t really needed but it kinda is if we have children……memories, what weird things they do to us.

  • Lovely post. Congratulations! i am living with my daughter, her husband and baby in a drafty, cold-downstairs, too warm-upstairs, partially renovated 1800’s house in rural, southern Fauquire. Their furnace is an old electric heat pump that only works until the temperature gets down to about 31. Then, a propane, water heated back up kicks in. Still, the downstairs was 43 degrees a couple of weeks ago when the night time temps dipped below zero. We wore a lot of clothes inside and out this year! I’m waiting for the rain and snow to stop long enough for the ground to dry out enough for excavation to start on my husband’s and my house on the adjoining 15 acres. our journeys are different, but enough the same that I will so look forward to your future posts.

  • Not small threads of things. Big things. My counsellor told me a few years back when I was lamenting whatever was bothering me that particular day that I needed to notice a few things: I had a partner, I had a sense of what I wanted to do and was doing it, and I was working on fixing the things that weren’t working in my life. This is winning. These are the big, big things. So very happy for you and so lovely to read your words. Congrats on the house! We have an apartment right now, which requires basically nothing (cat fur tumbleweeds are evidence of how much cleaning we’re doing… let alone fixing all the lights that don’t work, or the floors, or the dents in the walls…) But we are moving states this summer and therefore must sell it to buy a HOUSE. So much more responsibility in a HOUSE, but, still more possibility. Oh I hope it’s joyous for you, rumbling furnace and white wall painting and all. This is perhaps the third house of the yellow house? And good things come in threes, I hear.

  • linda mitchell

    So vivid, real, beautiful and full of hope!

  • This is my favorite kind of story. It reminds me of my own when I was traveling and living on my own in my younger years. Captivating and courageous. Congratulations to you on all of these pieces. It is likely that all is happening as it should, it will just take a million more thoughts to get used to it. Enjoy the slow moments because in your memories they will have truly gone by so fast!

  • Megan

    You are supremely lovely. I wish we were friends. Congratulations on so many things.

  • I once sat on an empty floor of a house not quite believing it… Wonderful story, it also reminds me of a box with nigella seeds I have stashed somewhere in the cupboard a long time ago. Time to find them and go make something… Happy house!

  • I always feel a tinge of sadness when I get to the end of your posts. This one in particular, I want to know more, what happens……and on and on. Please write a book one day, you know, when you get a sec. Congrats on the house too, btw.

  • Bird

    Beautiful. I’m so glad for you. It’s a dizzying feeling, to stand on the edge of things, but special and worth savouring. This post reminds me of sitting on my now back steps, waiting to hear if it was going to be my house, in the cool spring sunshine. My life has gotten a lot more complicated since, but so much richer. Enjoy the adventures to come!

  • Kathryn

    Beautiful post.

  • courtney

    i admit that i don’t subscribe to blogs (even though i know i am “supposed to”), and i have been tuning into a dozen or so for several years now pretty consistently. i just thumb through them some nights, usually a little while before bed, and i hope there is a post waiting for me to read. for the last while, i am the most excited when you post something new. yours is far and away my most favorite: your voice, the food, the pictures you put in my head, and the ideas that bang against each other (some from you sparking some in me). thank you.

  • Margit Van Schaick

    Sarah, this is so lovely, your thoughts tug at my heart-strings, reminding me of when I was about your age, returning from the Peace Corps in Somalia, and doing so many things one doe s in creating a life, a marriage, a family, a home. Buying our first house was a huge experience, one that I did not fully understand until years later (it was, in fact, a yellow house!). I wish you and Ben all the best. What I thought was especially wonderful in your story w as that bit about you and Ben riding the same bus to middle school. I had assumed that you met him much more recently. That little detail is especially wonderful. Are you staying in the same area you’ve been living in?

  • thanks for this lovely slice of your life, lady: not self-indulgent if so many people can see themselves in it. I had a conversation with a friend, recently married, about how those threads in her life–the strands of light, of connection, of serendipity–had grown more visible to her as she got older, and more prominently figured in the narrative of her life, and that she was more willing to make them mean something, call them by a name. she & her husband (since I’ve known almost as long as you’ve known Ben) asked me to write an invocation for their wedding, and, in it, I acknowledged grace–the term that I would ascribe to that constellation of nigella seed moments in your life. I know that we make the meaning, but it’s not such a bad meaning to give it, I don’t think.

    the woman who teaches the spin class I try to get to on Saturday mornings uses a distinction: “hard but doable.” it’s more uncomfortable than you want to be, thank you’d be in your default mode, but it’s not “all out” and you could, if needed, do it for a while. sometimes it feels like we alternate between moments of recovery & long stretches of “hard but doable,” yeah? (all within in a first-world context, of course.)

    now I’m rambling. anyway, thanks for your words. and congratulations on the house.

  • I don’t know if you are in person as you are when you write, if I would see in front of me the person I hear, but listening to you is such a job. I”m not sure exactly what it is, but there’s a calm that comes from you, even in moments of such momentous events. Your life is full, it sounds happy and I am sure there is more of the same ahead xx

  • What a beautiful, poetic, and soothing piece of writing! Congratulations! Enjoy your new house, your travels, and every moment of the “connecting things”.

  • Congratulations on so many happy, strange, and comforting things coming to you. I relate tremendously — got engaged in December, am wedding planning (though we pushed our out to next spring) and now house hunting. It is such a weird feeling and place to be in, and though I don’t like using this phrase often, I can’t help but pinch myself sometimes and think, “Is this real life? Is this really where I’m at now?” And I ask those questions in a good and surprising way because I’d never have guessed 3, 4, 5 or more years ago where, with who, and how I’d be today.

    Congratulations again. Safe travels, and best of luck on the cauliflower cake – I look forward to seeing and reading how it turns out if you share.

  • Lynn D.

    Be sure to plant some of those nigella seeds in your garden. They make a beautiful blue flower often called love-in-a-mist which also look terrific dried. Just sow them on roughed up ground.

  • That’s beautifully written. So well written I could see in my head exactly where you were and what you were thinking. And, yes, congratulations on the new house :) Quite a journey ahead of you.

  • Amy

    You’ve really captured the mixture of excitement, hesitation, and anticipation that accompany changes like these. Best of luck with all of them!

  • All teared up. Maybe it’s because I know nigella seeds in the love-in-a-mist kind of way. Maybe it’s my G’ma’s diamond and my Mom’s white gold glistening on my left ring finger – words they spoke to me decades ago floating on memories – faces long gone Maybe it’s the rabbit hole I fell into as I read your words. Yes, the rabbit hole of comforting thoughts as I “round the next corner,” in mid-leap.

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