Love and Saffron

My latest fiction read was the delightful novel Love & Saffron: A Novel of Friendship, Food, and Love by Kim Fay

It wasn’t the food element that drew me in. I was intrigued by the setting — Los Angeles and Washington State in the 1960s.

I picked up this book because it is a story of female friendship. And most importantly, I picked up this book because it is a story told through letters. 

(Many of you may not know, but I have a pen pal who lives in Japan. We have been writing since 1993! While we do occasionally send an email, most of our communication happens through hand-written letters. Under my bedside table, I have a box where I keep all her letters.)

Here are just a few snippets from the novel to share with you:

“Los Angeles is such a varied place. There are foods from dozens of countries at our Grand Central Market alone, and there is a different country in every corner of the city. At the risk of sounding like a shill for the tourism board, Armenia, Italy, Poland, Portugal, India, Greece, you name it and you will certainly find it here.”  (This passage was taken from a letter dated September 30, 1963, but I think it is just as true for 2022.)

“Personally, I don’t enjoy the phone. It feels impersonal to me, which might sound strange since a voice in one’s ear is a cozy thing. But when I’m on the line, I can mend or play Solitaire, while with a letter I must pay close attention. There is unequaled satisfaction in composing words on a blank page, sealing them in an envelope, writing an address in my own messy hand, adding a stamp, walking it to the mailbox, and raising the flag. It’s like preparing a gift, and I feel like I receive one when a letter arrives — yours most of all.”

“I will treasure our midnight conversations, especially about our hidden selves. To think we are made up of so many different layers, and we may never meet all of them before the big sleep. I have been thinking about your comment, about how when we are very young we are so sure of who we are. I admit, there have been times when I longed to be fifteen again, confident that I knew absolutely everything about myself. But I prefer the viewpoint you have been pondering since Francis’s encounter with the saffron. The less we cement ourselves to our certainties, the fuller our lives can be.” 


Add idiopathic to the list.

The list of words doctors and nurses have used to define me and my health.

Idiopathic is a new one.I give the doctor bonus points for using a synonym, and one that is much more professional-sounding than the other words I usually get:

Weird.  (You can read a blog post from 2019 titled “Stop Calling Me Weird.”)




Strange. (Click here to read my blog post from 2020 titled “Weird? Strange? No. It’s My Reality”)


At last week’s appointment, the doctor told me the new symptom we were concerned about, the reason behind the additional lab tests, could very well wind up being idiopathic.

We’ll see. We’re waiting for additional lab results. 

And therein lies one of the great dilemmas I live with — do I want “something” to show up on a test? Something that might shed some light on why my body is behaving the way it is. A surefire sign that would explain why something is happening within my body and how we best go about treating it. 

Or, would I rather be told the tests were inconclusive? Indeterminate? Ambiguous? Unresolved?

Because I’ve heard those words, too. That just means nothing of red-flag magnitude showed up on my tests, which rules out quite a bit. However, it does not provide my doctors and me with any information about where we go from here. 

And therein lies the big conundrum in my life with a chronic illness. 

(Another word a doctor has used in the past.)

What We Carry

What We Carry: A Memoir by Maya Shanbhag Lang is one of those books that surprised me. I was not familiar with author Maya Shanbhag Lang, and I didn’t know much about the book other than the fact that it was a memoir, a story about a mother and a daughter.  

Now having recently completed the book, I realize my copy is full of sticky notes. 

How would I describe this book? 

With these adjectives — Touching, heartfelt, tender. Moving, affirming, empowering.

And by sharing these passages: 

“So it goes between us. Everything she does is for my benefit. This is what a mother’s love looks like to me. It looks like suffering.
“I accept it. I am about to become a mom three thousand miles away from her, in a gray, drizzly city that feels wholly unfamiliar. Soon, I will be the one putting my needs last. It helps to believe that somewhere in the world, I still come first.”

“It was a release to have her say what I could not. This was why I loved my mom, why I craved her audience, why only she would do. In life’s most difficult moments, there was no wall between us. She would never say, ‘I’m so sorry for your loss,’ would never put herself on the other side of hardship. She came over to my side. She ached for me, felt for me. She received life’s blows on my behalf.”

“I took refuge in stories. Books transported me to farms and ships and castles. Even when bad things happened in novels, the events followed a certain logic. This comforted me.”

“Contemplating worse pain doesn’t lessen mine.”  (This sentence shouts at me from the page, because I have marked it with a neon yellow highlighter. While the author wrote this sentence in relation to the difficult relationship with her father, I find I need this reminder as it applies to my physical pain.)

“My assumptions of motherhood have been all wrong. I feared I was supposed to have all the answers. I didn’t know my daughter would help me find them. I worried she would be an obstacle to my dreams, not the reason I went after them. Zoe makes me want to be the best version of myself. That isn’t sacrifice. It’s inspiration.”

“It sounds like the worst time to weigh one’s desires, as a new parent, but maybe it’s the best, the most necessary. When tasked with caring for a human being, when asked to subsume one’s own needs, this is when we require a firmer grasp on ourselves. Rather than telling new moms to indulge, to do the frivolous activities women in movies do, we should say this: Find yourself. Gather yourself up before it is too late. You are at risk of getting buried. Maybe you’re already feeling buried. Do something that will solidify your sense of self, buttress your retaining walls. Don’t worry if it feels scary. It’s probably a good thing if it does. 
“Working on my novel for an hour or two restores me. I return home from the coffee shop feeling renewed.
“Perhaps this is what we should give new moms: A laptop and a cup of coffee. A notebook and a pen. Permission to dream.” 

“I thought this was going to be a dark and difficult time for my family, one of strain. It occurs to me that diamonds aren’t made voluntarily. What lump of coal would opt for so much time and pressure? It could be that what shapes us against our choosing is what makes us shine.”

“Alzheimer’s is devastating because it annihilates one’s story. It vacuums it up. Even the name feels greedy to me. What gets me is the apostrophe, that possessive little hook. It drags your loved one away from you. My mom no longer belongs to me. She belongs to her illness.”

Mr. Perfect on Paper

There aren’t many books written by an author who has earned a daytime Emmy, “and spent five years in rabbinical school before her chronic illness forced her to withdraw.” 

That author is Jean Meltzer.

(You might remember I raved about Ms. Meltzer’s first novel, The Matzah Ball, in a blog post from several months ago. Click here if you missed it.)

And as was the case in her first novel, Ms. Meltzer’s second book also features a main character who is a Jewish woman living with an invisible chronic illness. 

The book is Mr. Perfect on Paper. The character is Dara Rabinowtiz.  

Mr. Perfect on Paper was such an enjoyable read. Smart, funny, heartfelt. Plus, it gave readers a chance to learn about Jewish holidays in an easy-to-understand manner. Most of all, it gave us characters we cared about.

Here are a few of the passages I marked during my reading:

“He beamed as he entered, a bounce in his step, offering a hearty good morning to each person he passed. He was a champ at this. Faking it. Looking happy. Smiling through whatever pain was threatening to drown him.”

“There were days when Dara was so exhausted from her struggles that she could barely find the courage to get out of bed. It was then that her mother would show up, standing over her — and sometimes tearing off her covers — demanding that she fight. Fight, Dara. Her mother would repeat it like a mantra on her bad days. You’re allowed to be afraid, you’re allowed to be anxious, but you have to fight.” 

“There isn’t one way to be Jewish,” she said, finally. “Some people are very observant. Some people aren’t. Some people fall in the middle of the spectrum, or have different philosophies behind the reasons for their observance. Some people don’t do anything. When two Jews marry, they have to negotiate these religious choices. For example, will they keep a kosher home? Will they observe Shabbat? Will you cover your hair, or go to mikvah? Those are some of the big ones…”

“But,” Dara said thoughtfully, “you learn to live with it. The sadness never goes away. Maybe it never gets smaller, either. But after a time, you learn to hold both. You learn that joy still exists … there’s still laughter, and falling in love, and —“ she smiled, glancing down at the crumbs of her pizza “—there’s still jalapeño-and-pineapple pizza. You learn that good things still happen. You meet someone. You fall in love. Maybe you even get married. And when you walk down that aisle, you hold both. You hold the joy of the moment alongside your sadness for the one who can’t be there.” 

“But what I learned from this journey, from finding my real-life Mr. Perfect on Paper, is that love isn’t something that can be quantified on a list. Love is messy. And terrifying. It shows up when you least expect it, and complicates your life in every way. But it’s also … safe. And comforting. It allows you to be yourself completely, without judgment or fear, and it feels right. I don’t know how something so incredibly scary can also feel right, but I need to give this inkling in my heart —in my soul—a chance.”

“I know you think…because you have anxiety, that you’re not brave. But that’s not true. I’ve been thinking about it a lot, actually, and here’s what I want to tell you. Courage ins’t about jumping out of airplanes or building businesses from scratch. Real courage is showing up, even when you’re afraid. Real courage is putting yourself out there, even when you fail — especially when you fail. Courage is saying, this is who I am, standing up, allowing yourself to be vulnerable. And you are brave, Dara. You’re the bravest person I have ever met.”