Feast Kickstarter draws to a close…

Just a quick update to note that we’ve just broken 300 backers — terrific!

It’s a little unclear if we’ll make the final stretch goal; at just about $13,400 and only two days left, I don’t know if we’ll make it to $15K. Maybe? So if you’d like those cooking demo videos, this would be a great time to tell your friends and family about the project.

 

Regardless, great to be in the home stretch! I’m so looking forward to bringing out this lovely book.

 

And here’s a little treat, in case you missed my posting it on FB yesterday — I’ve finalized the 125 (!) photos for the eBook, and they’re all available to browse here on my Facebook wall. Something to whet your appetite…
Enjoy!
*****
Feast of Serendib Kickstarter: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/feastofserendib/a-feast-of-serendib
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Home stretch for the Feast of Serendib Kickstarter

Less than a week left on the Feast of Serendib Kickstarter — we’re heading into the home stretch. I just checked, the first time I’ve looked at the page in days, and someone actually signed up for the poetry package, which is delightful. (I hand-write a poem for you, on the topic of your choice.) The Island Relaxation package is almost all gone; just one left. And we’re almost halfway to the third stretch goal, where I commit to doing various teaching videos.

Heather is running numbers for me on the possibility of doing a print run (maybe yes for the paperback, probably no for the hardcover, I think, given pricing, but we’ll see, and will also be editing the little video that Kavi and I did together.)

Chugging along, chugging along.

Today, I re-cook the last few dishes to take better photos; this morning for falooda experiments — because if I’m going to re-cook, I might as well try expanding the recipe a bit too, right? I know, this way lies madness — just for the falooda, okay? Deal. And then I need to cook one more white fish curry, and one creamy mushroom appetizer, and then I think we’re done. Done? Well, we’ll see.

#serendibkitchen

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Context matters.

Every time I start writing a background piece on Sri Lanka, trying to connect the dots, I stall out, overwhelmed by just how careful I feel like I need to be, and also how, as a member of the diaspora who left long, long ago, I need to present my credentials for commenting.

• this many academic degrees (3, one of them a doctorate in post-colonial lit. and writing)

• this many great-aunts killed during the war (bombed, stabbed to death, cut into pieces) (2)

• this many grandmother’s houses, that I spent months in as a child, firebombed, so that she was forced to take refuge in a convent, part of the house destroyed completely (1)

• this many of my parents’ brothers and sisters, other close relatives, who experienced the terror and trauma of Black July, who hid for hours under Sinhalese neighbors’ beds, who fled as refugees (many)

• this many of my mother’s cousins who were killed in the North, long after the war ended, their throat slit, and we still don’t know whether that murder was war-related or something more personal… (1).

I can present those facts, and maybe I should. Maybe it matters that I’m a stakeholder in this conversation, that I have some backing behind me. Some context, so that when I start talking about Sri Lanka’s history, at least people know where I’m coming from. Context matters. It’s just…slowing me down a little, when what I want to do is give you the timeline, and walk you through it.

***

• pre-history: evidence of Balangoda Man — much taller than current Sri Lankans, with “thick skull-bones, prominent supraorbital ridges, depressed noses, heavy jaws, short necks and conspicuously large teeth.”

• “…sites that have revealed ancient human skeletal fragments are the Beli lena cave and Bellanbandi Palassa in the Ratnapura district. Carbon samples corresponding to the fragments were dated to respectively 12,000 BP for the former site and 6,500 BP for the latter, suggesting that the island may have been relatively continuously occupied during this time frame…”

It matters that Sri Lankan archeological evidence solidly supports the presence of Balangoda Man, that it establishes the Veddas as biologically linked to them, and as the earliest inhabitants of Sri Lanka, for thousands upon thousands of years.

• The Veddas: “…historical sources describe the aboriginal people of Sri Lanka—the Veddas—as hunter-gatherers, who inhabited natural caves and traded their game and honey for metal-based arrow and spear points from neighbouring village populations. These villagers were predominantly descendants of populations from the Middle East, Europe and the Indian mainland who during different periods were en route along seaways or arrived from India…”

It matters because ardent Sinhalese nationalists want to claim, and generally believe, that they were on the island ‘first’ — that ‘first’ has contributed to so much grief and pain.

***

Exercise for the reader: Draw connections to other parts of the world, other claims to be ‘first’ or with some other justification for a supposedly more righteous claim, and the consequences of those claims.

How we as humans allocate shared resources has to be one of the most pressing problems of the current age, with implications for race, ethnicity, religion, class, gender, environment, and more. We should be transitioning to a post-scarcity world, but there are so many obstacles in the way.

***

“Metrical and morphometric features of the analysable skeletal remains from the Sri Lankan caves have revealed similar anatomical attributes, signalling the likelihood of a biological continuum from the prehistoric hunter-gatherers of the island to the Veddas, and a close biological affinity over a period of roughly 16,000 years…recent genetic study has found indigenous Vedda people to probably be earliest inhabitants of Sri Lanka.”

Both Sinhalese and Tamils came to Sri Lanka about two thousand years ago. Both groups are latecomers, immigrants, invaders. What if that understanding had been more widespread during the war years, if it were more widespread now? There are still many, voters and politicians alike, using the rhetoric of ‘Sinhala First!’ to drive and justify public policy. Would it make a difference?

I don’t know. These are from notes I took in grad school, when I spent a semester studying Sri Lankan history, and I will forever be grateful to the Indian history professor who took the time to put together a focused reading list for me:

• 5th century B.C. – Indo-Aryan migrants from northern India settle on the island; the Sinhalese emerge as the most powerful of the various clans.

• 3rd century B.C. – Beginning of Tamil migration from India.

• There followed a long, relatively peaceful, period of multi-ethnic community in Sri Lanka…

***

I have no investment in yanking away any Sinhala sense of pride in homeland; Sri Lanka is majority Sinhalese, after all. And as far as I know, there is no significant Sinhalese population anywhere else in the world, and that matters too.

I do want to point out, at the same time, that Sri Lankan Tamils are really not the same as Indian Tamils, in a variety of ways — two thousand years of shared history, for one. Shared culture, shared traditions, intermarriage and friendship. Even for the strictly biological: “Vedda people’s mitochondrial sequences were found to be more related to the Sinhalese and Sri Lankan Tamils than to the Indian Tamils…”

Sri Lankan Sinhalese and Tamils are more related to each other than to anyone else on this Earth. We are kin.

More than any of the above, it matters that Sri Lanka had hundreds and hundreds of years of multi-ethnic community. Sinhalese and Tamil, Buddhist and Hindu and Christian and Muslim, side-by-side. Kings fought for power, while everyday people shared milk rice at New Year’s, rich cake at Christmas and weddings. It matters that we lived as neighbors and friends and kin for a thousand years and more.

That makes the tragedy of this past weekend, of the war years, so much more heart-breaking.

*****

More soon, I hope. The map image is a portolan map of the Indian Ocean — it was used by sailors to navigate the ocean, showing the ports and the windrose network of navigation lines. The little yellow blob at the tip of India is Sri Lanka.

(Sri Lankan history, 1 of ?)

Quotes from Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Balangoda_Man

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Vigil

Vigil

a few steps from my office
they hold a vigil; they
pass out candles. we try
to keep them lit though
the wind is gusting hard

they invite a Sri Lankan
student to read from
the Bible. I do not know
her; we do not have
a campus Sri Lankan
mailing list, a mistake
I am regretting fiercely

a prayer, a moment of
silence, and the wind
keeps up; we silently
re-light our candles, over
and over and over again

I scan the crowd for other
Sri Lankans — most here
are not, yet they have
come, have organized
this for us, to hold us up
when we are falling

afterwards, we find each
other — brown faces,
tilted heads — are you?
yes. yes, I am Sri Lankan
though I left long ago;
can I stand with you?

we do not speak
of bombings, we speak
of Sri Lankan New Year,
of Geetha’s in Evanston,
that carries our spices
our sambols and chutneys,
pickles and red rice

of summer plans to stay
or go home again; we’ll
find each other on Facebook
we do not ask who is
Sinhalese Tamil Buddhist
Christian Hindu Muslim
we do not ask

we light each other’s
candles over and over
as many times as
necessary

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The grief comes in waves

The grief comes in waves. I was doing okay, having tea, cleaning up, and then Roshani called. Thankfully, her family there is okay, but she is shaken, of course. The diaspora Sri Lankan Catholics are feeling it heavily; it must be so much worse for those who are there. Kavi was getting ready for school while I was talking to Roshani; she overheard the conversation, and interrupted to ask if all of our family was okay.

I had asked Kevin to talk to her, and he had, but I guess Kavi wanted to hear it from me — she’d apparently been on CNN’s website too, and one of her teachers had asked her about it. I tried to warn her to be careful of what she read online, that even generally good news sources like CNN sometimes got things wrong, because those journalists are just people too, carrying their own biases and assumptions. I don’t think I reassured her very much. I hate that Kavi has to think about these things already. I hate that these things exist.

And then I went to Trader Joe’s, and got coffee and berries and chocolates for today’s writing retreat, and I was doing okay again, until I saw their sample, of chili-lime seasoning mix, and I tried a bit of it that they’d put out on pineapple, and it was delicious and it tasted exactly like home and it made me want to cry.

I spent the rest of my shopping trip starting to write in my head a little capsule history of Sri Lankan history, because while many of you kindly reassured me the other day that it’s not my job to educate people on this — it kind of is my job.

I’m a writer, and a professor, and I studied Sri Lankan history in large part so I could both understand it and communicate it to others, and frankly, the timelines and the info you can get from Wikipedia or otherwise googling are inadequate, in my opinion. That gives you dry facts, when what you need is relational: how this leads to that, and how it made people feel, and what we are at risk for now. That understanding needs to be communicated urgently, at least to Western audiences who are trying to pay attention — Sri Lankans know it already, in their bones — and I am one of the people best placed to do that particular job.

I just…need a little time to pull myself together. I’m getting there.

Fresh pineapple chunks on skewers, dusted with chili, salt, and lime.
Fresh pineapple chunks on skewers, dusted with chili, salt, and lime. Source: https://www.mysrilankanrecipe.com/pineapple-with-chilli-mixture/

I bought two jars of the seasoning mix, one for me and one for Roshani, and I will serve pineapple sprinkled with chili, salt and lime at lunch to Roshani and Janea and whomever else shows up for writing day, along with the chicken curry and eggplant curry and mixed vegetable poriyal that I need to re-cook and re-take photos of for the cookbook.

Sri Lanka is observing a national day of mourning today. The death toll is at 310 now, and the funeral photos have started appearing, with stories of the victims. One little girl was thirteen, just a year older than Kavya. I can’t even look at the photo of her mother. I can’t stand it.

I’ve turned on all the lights on the first floor, and closed the windows, because it’s blustery out today. I’m going to borrow from the Danish hyggeligt tradition and light a forest of candles now — for Sri Lanka, for comfort, for hope.

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I talked to my father last night

I talked to my father for a while last night; as he knows, I’ve been more involved in Sri Lanka in the last few years, as my writing has increasingly centered there. In some ways, I’m more involved than he is these days — he left as a young man of about 30, and while we went every few years when I was little, we mostly stopped after Black July.

I was supposed to go back in summer of ’83 on my own to visit my grandparents, but they cancelled my flight when they got a telegram saying trouble was coming. My grandmother’s house was fire-bombed, I think that year, and she took refuge in a nearby convent. During Black July, thousands of Tamils were massacred in the capital city, and many of my relatives fled as refugees. (My SF novella, _The Stars Change_ is in many ways a translation of those events.)

I think my father hasn’t been back since 1995, when we all went for my uncle’s wedding? Even then, we stayed in the capital city, at the big hotels that catered to tourists, that seemed safer; most of us didn’t go to the north, where the conflict raged.

I don’t want to speak for him too much, but I think it’s fair to say that his connection to Sri Lanka was in some ways a casualty of the war — he felt it was dangerous to travel there for a Tamil after the events of Black July, and he grieved for what had happened to his country. Even watching the news was painful.

I went in 2005 with Karina, during the cease-fire, then again in 2018, with Karina, Kavya, and Jed. I would’ve gone more often, but first there was the war, and then small children, leading to lack of budget and lack of time. I have a little more time now.

Kev and I have been talking about trying to go more regularly, with the whole family, so the children feel a real connection to their heritage. In America, it is so easy to lose track of that, swallowed up in the great melting pot, but I do think something is lost there. I tried to set up a semester in Sri Lanka at one point, with plans to take the kids out of school and enroll them in an international school in Colombo, but that ran aground on department logistics.

But I took Kavi for the first time last December, and my plan was to try hard to start going more regularly, maybe once every 2-3 years. Attend the Galle Literary Fest perhaps — I was eight months pregnant with Kavi the year they invited me to be a guest, so couldn’t fly. Build more bridges with local writers, strengthening the Sri Lankan homeland – diaspora literary conversation.

I have loved reading speculative fiction books from Mandy JayatissaYudhanjaya WijeratneNavin Weeraratne in the last few months — there is a new flowering of speculative Sri Lankan literature, and it is so exciting. SF folks should read Navin’s _Zeelam_, for a vision of zombies in Colombo (with the remnants of war hovering in the background). You should read Yudhanjaya’s new Commonwealth Empire series, starting with _The Inhuman Race_ — a post-apocalyptic Sri Lanka, in a universe where the British never lost control of their empire.

In the last few months, Yudha and I have been working on building that connection, creating a South Asian SFF Facebook group, encouraging people to read each others’ work. I’ve loved introducing them to Naru Sundarand R.K. Kalaw, and vice versa. Yudha will be here in just a few weeks, to read at Deep Dish in Chicago, and then he and I will be at the Nebulas in L.A., where he’ll be the first Sri Lankan nominated for that award. This — this is what I want. Free movement, enthusiastic exchange of ideas and cultural support.

(Anu Mahadev, all of this is making me think — maybe Jaggery could do a spotlight issue on Sri Lanka sometime this year, highlighting some of the writers there? Let me know what you think of that.)

I don’t know what these attacks will do to tourism, which is a significant economic support of the island — there have already been some real financial problems there recently, with a government that has incurred massive debt (such as with the loan of Chinese money to build Hambantota Port, a loan they struggled to repay). Chinese investors are pouring billions of dollars into Sri Lankan infrastructure and developments, but many local citizens feel the country is being sold to the Chinese. Tourism dollars would be better revenue sources, leading to a more stable economy and better opportunities for the locals.

Friday morning, I actually met with the study abroad office, to see whether offering a UIC-led study abroad program might be feasible; that would let me teach a 3 or 6-week class there, and then stay longer if I wanted. The answer is possibly, though it’s a little unclear if students would be interested in taking a for-credit writing workshop in Sri Lanka. (Surprisingly, it wouldn’t cost that more than summer tuition here, so perhaps.) The next step would be talking to AISLS (the American Institute of Sri Lankan Studies) to see if they could be an institutional partner for UIC. Given events, I’m going to wait a little while to follow up with that. But not too long.

I’ve been talking separately with Suchetha and Mandy about offering a writing retreat there in the summer of 2020 — it wouldn’t be cheap, given the cost of airfare + cost of food and housing, but it would be beautiful; I would love to teach a little writing and show people my country and feed you all the delicious food. We’d get up, do yoga, talk about writing over egg hoppers, do a writing exercise or two, have lunch out and an excursion, then a nap, more writing talk over dinner, a little beach time in the evening, with arrack sundowners and crab curry… I had talked to Sugi Ganeshananthan and Nayomi Munaweera as well, thinking that we could all go, perhaps offer a sequence of such retreats.

Somewhere around $2200 + airfare for ten days, to cover room, breakfast and dinner, a driver and a van and plenty of water battles for excursions, visits to a turtle hatchery, a Madu River safari, entrance to the Temple of the Tooth, etc, plus a little teaching. Pay honorariums to local writers to come and speak / teach. We’ve even built in a little money to offer one scholarship to a writer of South Asian descent, to help them get back home.

It would cost notably less if people were willing to share bedrooms. I wasn’t sure if anyone would be interested at that price, but I’d planned to write it all up and offer, with the hope of taking folks in 2020. Maybe a food tour too? Or combine them? Writing + food = best. (Maybe I can talk Roshani Anandappa into coming along and helping with the food tour bit.) I wasn’t sure which people would be most interested in, but I figured I could use Facebook to do research.

Now I wonder — will people be scared to go? I saw photos of the Sri Lanka airport last night, with the departure lounge jam-packed with tourists. The streets under curfew are shockingly empty, where normally they’d be filled with cars and tuk-tuks and bicyclists. Yet at the same time, my dad said that as soon as the schools were reopened, he expected people would be back to school, back to work. They lived through the war, after all, and for most people, life didn’t just stop.

I know he’ll worry if I go back, if I take the children. Well, it won’t be soon in any case. We can hope that this was a single isolated attack, that they’ll identify the perpetrators quickly, and cut off any chance of them acting this way again. In the meantime, I’ll keep researching these trips, making plans to return as soon as I can.

This is Talalla Retreat, beachside in Talalla, one of the places we’re considering for the writing retreat. I haven’t been, but my friends there tell me it is private, serene.

Peaceful.

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Heartfelt Deviled Potatoes: A gift from Sri Lanka

All day, I’ve gone back and forth between wanting to keep posting photos from the Sri Lankan cookbook and feeling that it was inappropriate, that I shouldn’t be thinking about this right now, in the wake of such tragedy. But there is both a practical and a heartfelt reason to keep posting them.

Practically — the Kickstarter runs for 10 more days, and it is probably the best chance to get the word out about this project; I’m on a clock here. Otherwise, I might go dark for a few weeks, at least, out of respect. I probably still would — the book’s funded, after all — if it weren’t for the second reason:

Heartfelt — it’s a project that was never about making money; I can make more money in a few weeks of fiction writing than I likely will from several years of working on this cookbook. I started writing this book because I wanted to reclaim heritage cooking, for myself and my children, but also to share this food, this country, that I love with you all.

Which I suppose circles back around to practical — Sri Lanka is going to take a huge tourism hit from this attack; if I can convince a few more people that they want to see and visit and taste the food of this country, that is probably the most concretely useful thing I can do to help.

*

When vegetarian Karina was our girlfriend, twenty-something years ago, I barely knew how to cook. But I made these potatoes for her, and she loved them, and when she came back to visit, even years later, long after we’d broken up, Karina asked me to make them again. I made deviled potatoes for everyone I knew, back then. And though I cook many other dishes now, this one is a touchstone, a simple, sure-fire reliable comfort.

So let me give it to you. A gift from Sri Lanka (with my mother’s American adaptations), that you may know my little island country better, and maybe cherish it a little.

Use plenty of cayenne if you want to try it authentic style. If it makes you cry a little, maybe that’s okay.

*****

Deviled Potatoes / Urulai Kizhangu
(30 minutes, serves 4)

This was the first vegetable dish I learned to make, and I still find it addictive. It’s great with rice and a meat curry, but also works quite well mashed up as a party spread with triangles of toasted naan. For a little more protein, you could add canned and drained chickpeas when you add the potatoes.

3 medium onions, chopped
3 TBL vegetable oil
1/4 tsp black mustard seed
1/4 tsp cumin seed
1-2 TBL (or more to taste) cayenne
3 medium russet potatoes, cubed
3 TBL ketchup
1 rounded tsp salt
1/2 cup milk or coconut milk, optional

1. Sauté onions in oil on high with mustard seed and cumin seeds until onions are golden/translucent (not brown). Add cayenne and cook 1 minute. Immediately add potatoes, ketchup, and salt.

2. Lower heat to medium and add enough water so the potatoes don’t burn (enough to cover usually works well). Cover and cook, stirring periodically, until potatoes are cooked through, about 20 minutes.

3. Remove lid and simmer off any excess water; the resulting curry sauce should be fairly thick, so that the potatoes are coated with sauce, rather than swimming in liquid. Add milk, if desired, to thicken sauce and mellow spice level; stir until well blended. Serve hot.

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I have no answers, and even hesitate to ask the questions

 

I did some photo editing for the Sri Lankan cookbook this morning, but then switched to one last board game with Jed, who is heading home in a few minutes. He offered to change his flight and stay, but while I’m shaken, it’s not as if there’s anything he, or I, can really do about it from here. I told him to go home. Fly safe.

We’d planned to play 666 casino and Spirit Island, a game that we’ve been meaning to play for some months — we’d even set the game up last night, but hadn’t gotten around to playing. It’s a cooperative game where you play the spirits of the island, working with the locals to defend against foreign invaders. I welcomed the distraction of a board game, but at the same time, would periodically look at the island board and find myself tearing up.

Sympathetic magic — ridiculous, and yet, there I was, wishing the spirits of the island might rise up, and speak for peace. In between rounds, I made myself cups of strong Ceylon tea and slices of toast, slathered with butter and seeni sambol. I ate them off the plate rimmed in Tamil letters, a plate that Kavi and I picked out at Paradise Road last December, when I took my daughter to Sri Lanka for the first time, so happy to show her this beautiful place that is half of her heritage, this island I love beyond all reason.

While we played, I kept using pauses (Jed’s a thinker when it comes to board games, where I am more impulsive) to check the news. The NY Times piece was slower to come out than some reports out of Asia, but is nicely comprehensive, and gives some good background for those not familiar. My little island has had ten years of blessed peace, after three decades of weary conflict.

I wrote ‘conflict’ and then ‘war’ and then ‘conflict’ again. I don’t know what the right term is, even now, after studying it for so long. How do we name this sort of terrorist action, when the opposing group is unknown or ill-defined?

I am teaching a post-colonial lit. class right now, and have just finished grading papers where many of my students wanted to argue that violence was justified against the invaders, the oppressors. Many of our texts, such at the Irish revolutionary poems and songs, led them in that direction. But I asked them, in just this past Monday’s discussion, if they were sure violence was justified.

How much violence? Against whom? What about suicide bombers, walking into peaceful places, killing children? Where is the line between freedom fighters and terrorists; is the line drawn in motivation? In actions? Ifyou are just a few individuals, trying to resist the power of an oppressive and powerful state, you might be drawn to unconventional forms of resistance, of warfare. Yet surely there is a line where you have gone too far.

And what if your motivations are grounded in hatred, rather than in oppression? What drives people to such extreme acts? My students had no answers for me.

Today, all I do is check the news compulsively, listen for what little word is coming directly from friends and family on the ground, try to piece patterns out of sheer incoherent horror. Desperate to understand.

Surely it wasn’t accidental that the terrorists chose Easter Sunday for this attack? One sourcelander friend suggested that the reason the big hotels were targeted was because they were holding Easter brunches, so it was actually the same population attacked in both hotel and church locations. Perhaps?

Catholics are 6% of the population of Sri Lanka; although I’m not religious myself, I was raised Catholic and most of my extended family there is Catholic too. They must be in such fear right now, waiting to hear whether the government has caught the perpetrators, waiting to hear whether it is safe to venture out again.

What possible threat could the perpetrators feel from a tiny percentage of Catholics? It makes no sense, no matter how I approach it. The photo below is one I took last December, of my mother, her sisters, and their first cousin, mother-of-the-bride at a wedding in a Catholic church in Colombo. I can still remember how it felt, baking in the heat of the church with Kavi leaning on my shoulder, watching my beautiful cousin come down the aisle.

I don’t live in Sri Lanka; I was born there, and left when I was only two years old. I was just talking to Kevin yesterday about how I don’t quite know how it was that so much of my writing work has ended up centered there. I didn’t have to write about that country; I didn’t have to feel connected, to care. And yet here I am, caring. But for all my study, and despite my relatives and friends who still live there, I’m not a stakeholder in the same way as someone embedded in the community. I have no answers, and even hesitate to ask the questions.

Yet, how can we not ask? Why did this happen? Why now?

Dangerous questions. We need answers, but as soon as you start framing the questions, it’s so easy to slide into us vs. them, reinforcing and reifying divisions — divisions that then lead to politicians and their rhetoric, and the cruel policies that so often follow. We are living that reality here in America, brutalizing those who flee violence to seek refuge on our border, tearing children apart from their parents.

I am not religious, but if I could pray, I would. I send messages out to the universe, composed of tea and tears. After so many years of peace — please, let us not descend into madness again. Please.

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All I know to do is work, and hope that the work helps

My plan for today was to finish editing cookbook photos and post them here, along with garden photos, family photos, maybe even Sri Lanka trip photos, if I had time. It feels frivolous now. But it’s 7 p.m. in Sri Lanka; the island is under curfew, and we may not get much in way of news for quite a while.

Sometimes, all I know how to do is work, and hope that the work helps, somehow.

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