The last night of Troy - Cassandra seized by Ajax at the Palladium

The Cassandra Pages is a weblog of personal reflections on world culture, place, and spirit. The author, who uses the internet pen name "Cassandra", grew up in a small town in central New York State and went off to university where she got a degree in classics, but she also spent summers working as a naturalist for the New York State department of environmental conservation. Cassandra is a self-described polymath who's always been interested and involved in many things: literature, painting, music, nature, and spirituality. Her writing reflects all of those passions.

"I've always kept a daily writer's journal," she says, "and maintained a large correspondence with people all over the world. Both letter-writing and journaling help you figure out the shape and flow of your life and thinking. Challenging correspondence with other thinkers, and with people you care about, forces you to sharpen your thinking, back up your opinions, and write evocatively and clearly about daily life. I may have 'learned to write' in college, but I became a writer through working in these other forms and taking them seriously. And in turn, writing made me see the treasures that are under my nose in ordinary life - everybody's life is extraordinary, we just need to learn to see it that way."

Cassandra wrote a monthly essay column on spirituality and daily life for four years, and her work has appeared in spiritual and religious journals in the United States and in England. She's currently working on a collection of essays, and starting to focus on a new project about how people finding meaning and beauty in life despite the world's chaos, violence, and anxiety. The ongoing discussion about post-war Polish poetry on The Cassandra Pages is part of that project; so is her writing about "place".

Other pieces by Cassandra

Requiem for a Tree
Faith and Potatoes
Ten Grains One Life

Ten Grains and One Life

"Seven times!" said Anita. My friend was sitting on the floor of her half-built house, washing basmati rice with a hose running into a large plastic tub. She swirled the rice in the water, then dumped the milky fluid into a pail, running a new batch of clear water over the grains. "My Indian friend told me five times isn't enough. Always seven!"

My childhood friend Anita was born while her American parents were living in South America. Coming from a home where we ate potatoes, bread, and carefully separated meat and vegetables, I found her mother's unidentifiable but delicious stews on top of rice, and strange desserts like fried bananas, both scary and compelling. Anita grew up adventurous: I have a little black-and-white picture of her in a batik sarong, digging taro roots in a Fiji garden, where she served in the Peace Corps. As a young married woman, it was a small leap for her to the makeshift kitchen, the hose and tub, the rice, the windowsill lined with bottles of Indian curry pastes and chutneys.

Whenever I wash rice now in my own home, I smile, remembering that scene and my friend's instructions. Washing rice is a meditative act for me, one that slows me down and connects me with billions of other women who are also preparing this grain, the primary food for half the people on earth. The common prayer for most of them must be "Give us this day our daily rice."

Rice is a tall grass with thin, narrow leaves; human beings probably began cultivating it in Asia around 10,000 BC. Each plant has several flower stalks, usually topped by a cluster of developing kernels that yields about two handfuls of rice. Although certain varieties of rice can be grown in upland, drier conditions, most rice is grown in flooded terraces, or paddies. Paddy rice requires the backbreaking hand-labor of large groups of people living close together and working cooperatively. Rice is used as money as well as sustenance. It's a symbol of fertility, showering newlyweds from Southeast Asia to Brooklyn; of oppression and lifelong toil; and of celebration.

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Shirin brings the steaming platter to the table. The snow-white, fragrant mound, unmolded from its pot, is crowned by a golden crust, only one or two grains thick. There are other wonderful Persian dishes on the table - lamb with walnuts and pomegranate syrup, braised spinach with poached eggs, chicken with lemon and saffron. But the rice is the centerpiece, and true test of the cook's skill. Every time Shirin serves this rice, she makes the culturally-expected litany of apologies: "It's not quite right, the crust is too brown -- too tough -- it's a little dry -- a little sticky --." But the eager guests can't seem to get enough of it. I've never eaten rice this perfect or this delicious. It is an entirely new food.

In Iran, the cooking of rice has been a high culinary art for centuries. "No matter where they are," Shirin tells me, "women always start talking about rice, what kind is new, what is best. Everybody has a little secret for making it more perfect. But the men care about rice too. At home we ate rice with every meal, but once in a while we'd have lunch with bread instead. About four o'clock my father would say, "Shouldn't we have something to eat soon? There wasn't much to eat in that lunch!"

Not all stories about rice are happy ones. I asked my friend Yuan, in beijing, for a Chinese story. She wrote: "This is a poem everybody can recite in China, no matter baby in three years or old people. It is written in Tang Dynasty (618-907):
Hoeing the field when sun in noon,
On the earth the sweat drop.
Do you know the rice in bowl --
Every grain is toil."

Yuan's husband, Lu, told another story: "In old China in a landlord family, the peasants who rent his field must render tax to him. They have no cash so they give rice to the landlord. One day an old peasant give the rice to him and there are ten grains left in his bag. The landlord turned angry and beat hard the old man. They found the old man had died when they stopped. This is the title of the story: 'Ten grains and one life'. This is a real story happen in 1930's."

In France, an adult eats about 4 pounds of rice annually, while an Indonesian consumes 330 pounds -- nearly a pound every single day. We recently made a major commitment, acquiring 30 pounds of rice. Our twenty-pound bag of jasmine rice is "Family Elephant" brand, from Thailand, stamped with a cheerfully trumpeting band of big and little elephants. The 10 pounds of basmati are Shanamou ("Queen") brand from India, with lettering in Arabic, English, and Farsi. I bought it in a small Iranian market in Montreal, where the shelves are filled with spices and tea, and the floor with burlap bags of various pistachios and piles of blue- and red-stamped bags of rice. "What is the best basmati?" I asked. "This one," the storekeeper said. "If you don't like it after you've cooked some, just bring it back."

I once read the words of a novice Zen monk whose practice was cooking in the monastery kitchen; he had been told never to waste a single grain of rice. Each time I wash the long grains in the luxury of my spacious, warm, bountiful kitchen, I try not to lose any to haste or carelessness. As the water runs clearer and clearer, each grain becomes distinct, like small, pure souls who have traveled very far to remind me of the preciousness of each life and what sustains it, on this planet we all share.