Skimming Deep

Searching, traveling, talking, reflecting, and exploring. Read along with me as I continue on my journey through life.

Tag: learning

#8: History

I get a daily reflection from this site called Daily Om. They’re nice short nuggets of wisdom and truth that I ponder for the day, and often they relate to something I’m thinking or dealing with. It’s nice to read them and then delete them. Kind of like these ancestor cards.

So today’s Daily Om was titled “Knowing Your History,” amazingly enough coinciding with today’s ancestor card HISTORY. The reflection talked about the importance of knowing where you come from in order to better understand yourself. How true.

I recently heard about research that shows that a family’s history can be written into the genes. There is growing research that says, for example, that trauma is genetic, passed down through the generations. So if one generation went through a traumatic time like war or genocide, that experience gets transmitted, not only through the stories told (if they are told at all) but also through family members’ biology.

I’ve learned about my family’s history only as an adult. I knew that both my parents were children in the Korean War (mainly because I put 2 and 2 together – knowing their birth years and the years of the war), but we never heard the stories of those experiences when we were young. It wasn’t until I went to Korea after college and spent time with my relatives that I started getting snippets of what happened during that time. And I started asking more questions of both my parents, and slowly they shared the traumatic experiences they endured during that 3 year war.

At one point, I wanted to become a history teacher, to uncover the Lies My Teacher Told Me and to teach A People’s History of the United States. I wanted to teach what wasn’t usually taught – Asian American history, ethnic studies, the social movements – and connect that to what we typically learn in U.S. history – slavery, Manifest Destiny, the Industrial Revolution, the Civil Rights Movement and women’s movement. I wanted to connect the dots of all the facts, dates, and historical people we learn about to a larger framework of how this country came to be and why it looks the way it does today. I was especially interested in better understanding and teaching about systems of oppression – racism, sexism, heterosexism, classism – and about capitalism’s role in perpetuating oppression in U.S. society throughout its history.

I didn’t end up going that route, but I am still a lover of history and of connecting those dots. History is about interconnected stories which bring together characters who influence each other for better or worse. So while I try to understand those stories in my own past, both individual and collective, I also have been learning to let go of any hold that history has over me. Some history wants to keep us in its clutches, never to move forward. Other history is fleeting and passes through us (or us through it). When does history become an oppressive force? And how do we let go of that force when it seems to weigh us down?

A Study in Sourdough

I brought back a sourdough starter from New Zealand, from one of my homestays.  The starter is from a German woman, and I’m thinking she got it from Germany and brought it to New Zealand.  And then she gave me some dried up chips to bring back to the U.S.!  That’s something I love about sourdough starters– the passing it forward aspect.  I wonder how many households are using this same starter around the world?  And what’s cool is that all the loaves of bread, or other bread-related foods, all probably taste and look really different.

Here’s my sourdough starter, sitting in a mason jar after having been revived from a dried state back in December when I came back to the U.S. after my most recent travels:


And here is a collage of some of the loaves I’ve made.  I’d say I’ve probably made close to a dozen loaves in the last months.  And each one has been different.  I haven’t quite hit upon the right combination of ingredients.  But I’ve learned a ton just from the process.  It’s always amazing what you can learn from doing something over and over and over again.  Like running– there are all these learnings from running that have been documented: Haruki Murakami wrote about these learnings (a great little collection of essays) and there are lots of blog postings about lessons learned from running.  Just type in those key words into your favorite search engine, and a slew of posts come up.


So here are my learnings from making sourdough bread using a sourdough starter.  Let’s start with the more practical, mechanical learnings.

  1. Managing a starter is a big part of the process.  And it’s not as difficult as one would think.  You just want to keep your starter bubbly and happy, and you can tell when it’s not happy. Happy = elastic, gooey, bubbly, white-ish, and yeasty-smelling.  If it’s grey, liquidy, and stagnant, then no good.  And the way to manage a starter is just to feed it flour and some water every few days.  More frequently if you leave it on the counter (like every other day or so) and less frequently if left in the fridge (once a week or so).  You keep it in the fridge if you don’t use it every week.  That’s what I do.  I make a loaf every 2nd or 3rd week or so, so I take the starter out of the fridge a few days before I want to make a loaf, feed it, and then use it.  And when I’m not making bread, I leave the starter jar in the fridge where the molecules just rest a bit.
  2. Pay attention to the starter but not too much attention.  It doesn’t need to be severely monitored, but it also likes some love every once in awhile.  That’s what’s great about a starter, it’s pretty low maintenance, like succulents which don’t need a ton of water or care.  I appreciate the low maintenance of this little organism.  It needs me but not too much!
  3. Just estimate measurements, but maybe start with a more exact recipe.  I’m more of a cook than a baker.  I like to use a recipe as a starting point and then make my adjustments, like adding more of one spice than another or substituting sour cream for yogurt or adding in different vegetables.  That’s why I can only do quick bake recipes like chocolate chip cookies or banana bread.  Anything that requires a lot of measurement and exact protocols is annoying to me.  It’s funny because I’m totally not like that in real life– I’m incredibly detail oriented and concerned with protocols and precision.  But when in the kitchen, I like to let that go.  It’s my chance to unwind and be free of the work-mentality.  So with sourdough bread, I started with a recipe, got comfortable with how the dough should look and feel, and then started to improvise from there.  I added a bit more honey or tried a different kind of salt or oil or flour.

And from there, the more meta-level learnings:

  1. Learn to let go.  As I said, I’m usually a bit of a control freak about things.  So making sourdough bread has taught me to be more free and improvisatory.  I’ve experimented with the recipe I started with, and just yesterday, I tried a completely new recipe, incorporating yeast along with the starter.  That resulted in a new texture to the bread.  I think I’ll try it again and add more salt and some honey.  Every loaf I’ve made, I’ve done something a little different.  I’ve had some success with some and some that weren’t so great (that went to the chickens!).  But I’m learning to go with the flow and be more flexible about bread-making, specifically and life, more generally.
  2. Make your own food.  I’m learning to look at the things I eat and see where I can cut back on processed, store-bought, ready-made consumables.  It’s really interesting to see how much you can “take back” into your own kitchen.  I’ve only bought two loaves of bread in the last six or so months.  And those were both when I had friends in town and was making bruschetta or something special that the sourdough bread didn’t quite work for.  Bread is my big project right now.  I’m not sure what other foods will come next in my journey of making my own food!  Any suggestions?
  3. Be in it for the long-haul.  Making bread is a lifelong process, I would say.  Because I’m not really using exact measurements and have been experimenting with different recipes, I keep playing around to find a really good loaf.  And even when I find that really good loaf, I’m sure I’ll keep maneuvering and wiggling to find another really good loaf made in a different way.  But I’m excited each time I put the loaf in the oven to see what will come out an hour later.  Besides the assortment of ingredients, things like climate, elevation, and water affect the bread, and that’s always variable.  So I can never come out with the same loaf twice.  But that’s part of the journey!

OK, I’ll leave it at that. I’m sure this list could go on and on.  But I like a series that just has three parts.  I’m still looking for good recipes for sourdough breads, so if you know of any, send them along!

Taking a Break

I've been spending quality time with family the last almost two weeks that I've been back in the U.S. This is the longest I've spent with family (parents, siblings, little 'uns of the next generation) since… summer vacation when I was in college, I think! What's strange is that my family no longer lives in Maryland where I grew up. Now half of them (my parents and a brother and his family) are in Arizona. So I'm in a town and state that I'm not familiar with, and I don't even have childhood friends around that I can reconnect and hang out with.

My main activities have been

  • hanging out with my niece and nephew, laughing at their antics and their silliness. They're 3 and 5, and they're a lot of fun to be around. They have such distinct personalities, and they're fun to talk to and play with.
  • cooking and baking sporadically. It's always a little weird cooking in someone else's kitchen where the pantry and cabinet contents aren't the same, and the equipment isn't the same. But I'm getting back into the groove. I've made some different cookies (glazed lemon shortbread, pumpkin-chocolate chip). My mom and I made 김밥 (kim-bahp, or Korean nori rolls) for dinner one night. I could eat 김밥 everyday. I love it! We used deli meats, but I usually use Spam. mmmmm.

  • experimenting with a sourdough starter that I brought back (shhh!!!) from New Zealand from one of my WWOOF hosts to make sourdough bread. I made one loaf already which was a little dense but still tasty. And I'm now working on my next loaf, waiting for its 12-18 hour rise (till tomorrow morning).

  • taking walks and hikes around the neighborhood. The Arizona landscape is so different from my New England part of the world or even the world that I was in for the last three months. Cacti, lots of mountains, brush, sand…

I'm trying to take each day for what it is and to relax and enjoy this free time. And trying to read some books. I'm in the middle of reading Barbara Kingsolver's newest book Flight Behavior. I'm a big Kingsolver fan. I most liked The Poisonwood Bible, a fascinating read about a missionary family living in the Congo. She's a great developer of characters and plot, and I was especially interested in the political bent to that book. Animal, Vegetable, Mineral is also great, a nonfiction almost-autobiography written by Kingsolver, her husband, and daughter about their life in southern Appalachia, living off the land. It was really inspiring to read that after Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma.

The latest is about a woman and her family living in rural Tennessee. An unexpected natural phenomenon happens in the hills in their backyard and it totally changes her life (I'm not going to say what it is here because it's just too cool. You should read the book!). She goes from being a young mother and wife who's not very happy with her life to immersing herself in this occurrence and getting a job with researchers who are investigating the phenomenon. Two months after the chain of events begins to unfold, we read, “Two months ago. Impossible. Her world had been the size of a kitchen then. Now she had a life in which…” and Kingsolver proceeds to explain the changes that have expanded Dellarobia (the main character)'s life.

Our world is only as big as the prior experiences we've had– places where we've been, people we've met, information we have gained, food we've tried, languages we've heard. It's amazing how much our world expands as we learn and experience new things. And the size of our world affects how much we really SEE.

For example, before I started recognizing edible plants (herbs, vegetable leaves, fruit trees before the fruit has grown), I just saw green leaves on stems and trunks and branches. So all of that green just looked the same, and I could easily see it as all the same– plants. But now, I recognize, for example, rosemary bushes, basil plants, lavender plants, and on, and a garden is no longer just lots of greenery but is a bunch of different things we can eat. I'm still learning so much about edible greenery, but once my eyes have been opened to the different kinds and colors of even just the leaves, I see garden landscapes with a whole new consciousness.

Broccoli, cauliflower, and purple cabbage (I think)

Travel has expanded my world. But also just taking the time to observe and reflect. Observing my family members. Observing new plants that I don't recognize. Observing the sky at different times of day. Observing my body's reaction to the REALLY dry air. Observing, reflecting, drawing conclusions, adding to my brain's file cabinet of consciousness.

Goodbye, New Zealand…

I have left the country. Moving on to warmer climes.

Two months in New Zealand, and I have put down some roots that make me sad to leave. I really have to come back here again someday (or even somedayS).

There's so much I'm going to miss about New Zealand:

  • the rolling green hills
  • the turbulent winds
  • the craggy, snowcapped mountains
  • the many moods of the sea
  • the lambs and sheep dotting the hillside
  • the beautiful Kiwi people with their open hands and warm hearts
  • the rich soil for planting bountiful gardens
  • the slower lifestyle
  • morning and afternoon tea time
  • the flora that I have come to know bit by bit
  • the trilling, unique song of the Tui bird and the bellbird
  • the Kiwi accent and uses of the words “heaps,” “wee,” “flash,” and “love” (to address people)

I wonder if I had spent more time, like a year, here if I would grow tired of this place. Is part of the beauty of this place the novelty? The first-time, honeymoon factor? And like anything or anyone else, would it start to lose its sparkle if I were to get more settled and rooted?

I have heard of some expat Kiwi critiques that they feel New Zealanders are provincial, small-minded country bumpkins, not aware of the world outside the small islands. And I wonder if I would start to feel isolated and in a bubble, disconnected from the rest of the world. It's been easy in my time here to forget to read or listen to the news or to think about what's going on in the Middle East, for example.

But I guess rather than thinking like that, I can just leave it as what it is– a sabbatical for myself to go to the other side of the world to expose myself to new experiences and learn new ways of living. THAT mission was accomplished beyond my expectations. I take back so much new information in my brain, that it's going to take awhile to process it all. I brought a 100-page journal with me and have already filled half of it with just reflections on my time in New Zealand, Aoteaora.

So to you readers out there, if you're feeling antsy; if you've always had a travel bug bite that hasn't been scratched adequately; if you just want a change of scenery… save up some money, set a goal to go somewhere, and make it happen.

I did a search for “travel quotes” and came upon these two that struck me as a piece of what I'm carrying away from my New Zealand travels:

Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends. — Maya Angelou

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover. — Mark Twain


The Power of Community and Culture

I've been at the Seresin Estate for a little under a week, and each day has been different. What a change from my previous place where I was pretty much weeding a home garden everyday, which was really nice and rewarding, of course! Here, there has been a lot of variety, which has also been really educational and interesting. And I've been eating self-cooked meals everyday which has been nice for a change.

Front view of the house where I'm staying. Cozy, quaint. In the middle of vineyards!

  • Monday afternoon: I arrived and we weeded. By “we” I mean the two other WWOOFers, the head gardener, and his apprentice. A nice team of five with lots of chatting, storytelling, and jokes. Made chickpeas and veggies with rice for dinner.
  • Tuesday: in the morning, we did more weeding (a different area from the day before– maybe it was onions?) and then all afternoon we did the biodynamic preparation 500 that I explained in my previous blog post. And that “we” included our team and about 20 other volunteers and employees from the vineyards and winery. Made swiss chard and pasta with feta and colby cheese and cooked up some lamb sausage from the farm for dinner.
  • Wednesday: we continued weeding onion plants, a challenging job because the onion shoots were not much bigger than the weeds! And that was it for that day. This was the most tedious work we've done so far, but enjoyable because of lots of conversation and nice weather. Made falafel and pita with the others in our house for dinner. YUMMM!!!
  • Thursday: we prepped a section of land to plant potatoes using stakes and string. And in the afternoon we planted a few hundred potatoes in teams of two with a few more additions to our team of five. That was cool– planting all these spuds by hand (most people nowadays do it by machines, especially when doing on the scale we were– a lot!). Made grilled cheese sandwiches with swiss chard and spinach for dinner.
  • Friday: planted more potatoes, the rest for the land that had been prepped. Good morning's work. Filled some packets of wonderful composted soil for tomato plants which will be planted in a few weeks. Then after lunch did the preparation 500 again at the other estate, Raupo, which is the biggest area and where the best grapes are grown. Extra long day but felt quite accomplished at the end! Had some pancakes that one of the other WWOOFers made for dinner.

Strawberry patches in one of the garden areas on the estate.

To give you an idea of how each day works here, here's a typical day's schedule:

  • Wake up with the sun (I have my shades open for this reason) around 6:30 or 7am.
  • Lounge in bed a little.
  • Do my morning routine.
  • Eat breakfast– usually some muesli and yogurt or milk and a piece of toast with tea.
  • Read or take a morning walk.
  • Go to the estate (which is about 3 miles up the road) by one of the WWOOFers van or by walking (about an hour walk) or by bike (about 20 minutes).
  • Arrive at the estate by 10:30am-ish just as the employees are finishing up their morning tea time– a break where they eat snacks and drink coffee and tea. They start at 7:30am, but not us!
  • Get started working. Go until about 1pm when we break for lunch in their “smoko” room– basically the break room which is called “smoko” because it used to be where people would take a smoke for breaks; but people don't smoke here.
  • After a half hour lunch, work some more until about 4:30pm. And then head home.
  • Get home and relax a bit.
  • Make dinner with the other WWOOFers.
  • Take a shower. And then relax for a few hours– read, write, check email, just sit and chill.
  • Go to bed by about 9:30 or 10pm.

I'm outdoors all day which is wonderful. Such a reversal from life before where I'd be in an office all day with a glimpse of the outdoors on my walk to and from the train station and maybe during lunch if I had to go buy my lunch that day. Being outside for at least 6 hours a day is really do-able here in New Zealand. Even if it's a little cold or cloudy (or rainy), it's so beautiful. And there are the sounds of the wind, the birds, nature.

One thing I'm really getting exposed to here at the vineyards is the power of community. Even though it's a company– producing wines for sale all over the world– there is a feeling of family and closeness among the employees and even with the managers and higher ups.

Every Wednesday, they have a company smoko where all the winery and vineyard staff get together with the managers to give updates over some kind of food that they take turn preparing. Last week, the person on made amazing cheesy scones. So everyone hears the company updates and gets familiar with how the business is running. They also hear updates about the garden, which isn't so much part of the company side but is really about keeping some biodiversity and using the land for positive and meaningful things. The WWOOFers are also acknowledged at this meeting, which was held, not at a stuffy conference table, but standing around on an outdoor patio, over coffee and scones.

In addition to that meeting, I get the sense from the people I see daily over morning tea and lunch, those who work in the vineyards, that they all have each other's back and enjoy each other's company and respect each other. They truly believe in the organic and biodynamic principles. They really value each other as individuals. They value the earth and the animals on the farm. And they get paid doing this!

I've learned that the winemaking/ vineyard industry is really that, an industry as any other, and that few growers and winemakers think about the impact on the earth as Seresin does. Why do we have to rip up and destroy the earth to get what we want out of it? If we take an approach of respecting and giving back to the earth in exchange of what we take out of her, everything is more beautiful, sustainable, harmonious and productive.

Here's an example:

Notice the difference in these two unedited photos of vineyards. The top photo is of a conventional vineyard which uses herbicides and chemicals. The bottom photo is of one of Seresin's vineyard rows. Notice the color difference– brown grass on top, green grass on the bottom. Notice the feel you get– dry, brittle, a bit barren on top; lush, gentle, relaxed on the bottom.

So good wine here is about a holistic view– from the soil to the plant to the grape to the production to the people to the gardens amongst the vines to the treatment of their animals and people. It's about building a culture of sustainability, of respect, of value and love. Something I also really believe in and want to bring to anywhere I go and work and live.

I'm learning to read the earth these last few weeks. It's like learning a new language: what are edible plants, what are natives versus exotics, what is herbicided versus organic, what different birds are, etc. I can't wait to come home and see if I'm able to read the earth as I'm doing here.

A view outside the house where I'm staying. Hello, tree, said the bush.


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