I was on my way into the library for early voting when my brother texted: “There’s a shooting in our neighborhood. J’s at work. I’m out. It’s all blocked off. I can’t get home.”
My brother and his girlfriend live in Pittsburg. I live in Orlando. Beyond texting him back, there was nothing I could do, nothing to comfort or reassure him. I couldn’t meet him somewhere or invite him over to wait for news, and neither of us is the sort to spend hours on the phone. I felt helpless even on the small, intimate, human-to-human scale, and more than that, I felt the way Americans are accustomed to feeling now after a mass shooting. Angry and afraid, but vague, empty. I don’t want to say resigned, but it’s true that the sharp edges of my outrage had been worn away with frequent use.
I went on with my errands. I voted for people and laws I hoped were just, bought groceries and a book about grief, browsed the thrift store racks with my daughter and laughed at her delight over a pair of yellow overalls I would have coveted at her age. I checked my phone. I checked the news. Mass shooting at a synagogue. Multiple dead. Multiple wounded. I went home and put in a load of laundry.
The day before, our sister had had dental surgery. The doctor had cut into her gums to heal an abscess on her jaw, and she wouldn’t be able to eat solid food for several days. I had planned to make soup, something soft but substantial, something that felt more like nourishment than yogurt smoothies and ice cream.
There’s a fast and a slow way to make this soup, and I chose the slow way. I sliced and roasted sweet potatoes, stewed red lentils in broth with onions, garlic, celery, and curry powder. I read the news and tweets from the president. I added salt and black pepper, red pepper flakes and a little nutmeg. I didn’t put on music or pour a glass of wine. I blended and tasted and seasoned. I strained the soup through a metal sieve until it felt like velvet on my tongue, with just a hint of heat and just a hint of sweetness. My brother texted again: “Home now. Everyone on the street looks shocked and scared. Even the cats are on edge.” I poured the soup into a plastic container, topped it with a ribbon of green-gold olive oil, and carried it, still warm, to our sister.
I came home. I washed the dishes. I wrote a poem. I can’t say these actions were a comfort, exactly, and I know it isn’t good enough to just take care of my own. I know there are always things that can be done, always more that can be done. This isn’t really about that. This is about choosing to do one thing carefully and well, making something tangible that is as close to perfect as I can imagine it, whether or not it is a comfort, whether or not it is enough.
Lentil Soup with Sweet Potato and Curry
Makes ~1 ½ quarts
2 cups dry red lentils
1 large yellow onion
3-4 cloves garlic
1-2 stalks celery
2 medium-sized sweet potatoes
Enough water or vegetable stock to cover vegetables (you may need to add more as it cooks)
Salt and pepper
A little bit of nutmeg
Cut the sweet potatoes in half-inch-thick slices, coat in olive oil, and bake at 400 degrees until soft (you can skip this step to save time, peel and chop the sweet potatoes and cook them with the other vegetables; it will change the flavor and texture of the soup slightly, but it will still be good).
Roughly chop the other vegetables. You can add other vegetables too: red or yellow pepper, potato, cauliflower, tomato, carrot—whatever needs to be eaten before it goes bad. Cover the vegetables and lentils with water or stock and cook at a low simmer until the vegetables are soft and the lentils start to fall apart when you stir.
Add curry powder, salt and pepper, and a pinch of nutmeg. Peel and add sweet potatoes. Add other spices, if you like. A little cumin, turmeric, or coriander. A little cayenne or paprika or red pepper flakes—whatever tastes good to you.
Blend the soup until it’s smooth then strain it through a mesh sieve (you can skip straining it to save time, but I think the velvety texture is worth the extra step). Serve with a drizzle of olive oil or spoonful of plain yogurt.
Amy Watkins is the author of the chapbooks Milk & Water, Lucky, and Wolf Daughter (coming soon from Sundress Publications). She lives in Orlando with her husband and daughter and a mean-spirited ginger cat. Find her online at RedLionSq.com or @amykwatkins.