Spring 2021 ︎ Choosing to Grow
I used to believe that to truly slow down, we had to pare everything back. There is still merit in the idea that less is more, of course, but I've been reflecting on the small lessons each season can teach us about pace. As we enter the second spring of this pandemic, I've realized a particular beauty that comes with excess. With more vaccine distribution and accessibility, the months ahead will (slowly) mean more movement, more energy, and perhaps most notably, more choices.
But how exactly will we choose to begin again? In what ways will this expansion of choice teach us about responsible re-entry into the world?
As someone who asks a lot of questions, I appreciate spring's ability to reignite curiosity. While this is a muscle we desperately want to flex after over a year at home, our collective work starts with learning how to wade through the choices—and tapping into empathy to determine what's worth rushing towards (and what we can take our time relearning again).
None of this will be easy, and when I feel the push and pull between urgency and hesitancy, I often refer back to the wisdom of my guests. In one of the more recent episodes of Slow Stories, Zak Williams (who is no stranger to resilience) had much to share when preparing internally for—and then navigating—transformational times. This moment from our conversation has remained with me:
"I realize when it comes to pace, I've had to prepare myself—physically, mentally, emotionally—for certain hard things. And then you end up facing the things and addressing them, and often it's the case that they're not as hard as you thought they would be."
After constant tumult, it's difficult to imagine putting these words into practice—but stories like these help. They mitigate the uncertainty by adding perspective and heart to the callousness that has come to define life in isolation.
I'm anticipating a lot of stories during this period of evolution, and with Slow Stories, I'm hoping to tell a few of my own. I'm excited to bring back Slow Seasons to supplement the podcast with micro-stories that examine slowness through the lens of business, life, and creativity. I hope this series offers an encouraging reminder to notice—and immerse yourself in—things that matter most to you.
Here in New York, outward signs of spring have emerged quietly this year—buds have only just begun to sprout on trees, and the sun attempts to warm the sidewalks. Every day looks a bit different, yet there is movement toward something new. From my vantage point, what has become most noticeable oscillates between a visual and visceral plane—so much has grown within me. From head to toe, there is simply more of everything: uncut strands of long fine hair fall past my shoulders, a few folds of soft flesh settle loosely around my middle, bruises from relentless skin ailments sit atop my joints. Inside, organs toil, blood flows, and a feeling of longing is nestled between my veins.
Every day, I notice it all, and with this recognition, I marvel at the fact that little parts of me—however painful or unremarkable—have continued to grow. Despite everything, I have slowly (though not always steadily) blossomed.
May we all choose to keep growing (together—even while apart) this season and beyond.
Eileen Fisher, Designer
Design can inspire far beyond aesthetic purposes—just look at the work of Eileen Fisher. Since the inception of her eponymous brand, Fisher has cultivated a design practice that favors longevity. Coupling this with the impact of adjacent brand initiatives like EILEEN FISHER Renew and Waste No More, Fisher has helped ignite a global conversation about what simplicity can bring to our wardrobes (and lives).
For Fisher, this has remained top of mind at every level of the business, even during a period of tumult. “In the midst of the pandemic, this idea of radical simplicity came to me,” she says. “I saw for myself how beneficial it was to slow down—take time to rethink processes in the company, revisit ideas that might not have come to the surface in ‘normal’ times.”
Below, the industry-leading creator shares her take on what constitutes good design, the role of slow storytelling in the EILEEN FISHER brand, and the (slow) stories on her reading list.
- Rachel Schwartzmann
You mention that “good design is the result of paying attention to what women want and need.” How has your definition of—or relationship with—design changed as we’ve navigated this time of crisis and transformation? What are you paying attention to these days? Throughout this past year, I have noticed how little I truly need. I am gravitating towards the same garments week after week—creating a system for myself. A system that I can be comfortable in the entire day.
The concept of good design, for me, has always started with ease in dressing—making it easy for women to get dressed every day. Not trying to overthink but knowing that every piece works together seamlessly. That has always been the core concept of the line and is only more prescient now. Helping to alleviate any other worries and having your true self shine through.
In the midst of the pandemic, this idea of radical simplicity came to me. I saw for myself how beneficial it was to slow down—take time to rethink processes in the company, revisit ideas that might not have come to the surface in “normal” times. Like almost every business right now in retail, we have struggled this last year. And we have had to make tough decisions. We took the opportunity to stop and take stock of how complex the system really is. And we’re asking ourselves: What is essential? What do we want to be?
We’ve realized how complex our systems have become in the midst of making simple clothes! So we’re working through a real transformation of this business. We are evolving the way we think about design, the product, and how we flow it across seasons and into stores.
Pace plays a significant role in our conversations, and in the same vein as the slow fashion movement, I’m curious what the idea of slow content or slow storytelling means to you. How does this apply to the stories you tell via the EILEEN FISHER brand? The business was always grounded in the idea of good growth, intentional growth, slow growth. Not just simply producing more and more for its own sake. I think there have been times when we grew too quickly and needed to step back, take a breath, and reconsider what the future looked like.
For us, slow storytelling is taking time to educate our customers on what it is they are buying, what materials and fibers make up that garment, where it was produced, etc. It can be a tedious endeavor to share all these steps in the process. However, we find that the more our customer knows, the more they are willing to come back.
In a time of stillness, it’s interesting to meditate on the places that matter most to us. With that said, can you tell us about a place in nature that you like to visit during spring or when seeking slowness, clarity, or design inspiration?
I walk the same path home every day from the office. Each day the landscape is different—it is just so shockingly beautiful. I am particularly struck by the green grass. I find it symbolic of what we are experiencing with the company right now: bright spots of hope, renewal, and growth. I find nature so inspiring—there is a constancy in its continual change. I pass the same tree every day, and each day it has grown or evolved in some way. There is so much strength and inspiration in nature.
What is one question you hope people will start asking you more often in the coming months?
What is essential? What is unnecessary? How might we edit, pare down, and reduce? Those questions have really been my guide throughout this time.
What stories do you find yourself returning to during the spring months?
Right now, I am reading Release by Peggy Fitzsimmons, which has been incredibly insightful in looking at my relationships—in my personal life, at work, and with my surroundings—again coming back to that paring down concept. I am also reading All About Love by bell hooks. These two books have paired quite nicely together.
Sanaë Lemoine, Writer
Food nourishes the body and mind. But for those who are blessed with culinary prowess, food also becomes art. It transcends taste and creates a new lens for us to see the world—and connect with one another. Sanaë Lemoine’s writing is a shining example of this magic.
Lemoine—who joined me last year to discuss her debut novel, The Margot Affair—contends that she did not set out to write a food-centric novel. Nevertheless, her experiences as a food writer and cookbook editor inevitably made their way onto the page, and in many ways, shaped the book’s most poignant scenes. “I took a sip of chocolate, and the hot, viscous liquid caught in the back of my throat,” Lemoine writes while describing a tense exchange between Margot (the book’s narrator) and her mother, Anouk. “The soaked bread had the texture of papier-mâché.”
Since our conversation, Lemoine has remained a fierce supporter of Slow Stories. I, in turn, remain moved by her generosity, creativity, and resilience. Below, Lemoine writes to us from France and reflects on cooking, writing, and slowness. She also shares the (slow) stories on her reading list and the dishes she’s enjoying this season.
- Rachel Schwartzmann
April 26th, 2021 ︎ France
What’s changed the most since our initial conversation?
When we last spoke in August of 2020, I had recently published my debut novel, The Margot Affair. It was a fairly quiet and slow time compared to the previous two months when I was caught up in the flurry of book publication, but the rawness of having my first novel out in the world hadn’t worn off yet. There was the vulnerability of sharing my writing with strangers and a sense of excitement, too.
I remember our conversation on a Thursday morning. I was staying at my brother’s house in Washington D.C. (he was in Maine with his family for the summer), and it was incredibly hot and humid. I had lingering effects from having Covid-19 in the spring—most afternoons, I had to lie down from exhaustion, headaches, and nausea. I’d started working on my second novel again, which I’d set aside for a few months, and each day seemed to blend into the next, only anchored by the occasional interview or event, like the one with you.
Since then, so much has changed! The election in November, a winter of mostly being indoors punctuated by cold walks, and now a sense of renewal with the arrival of warmer weather. The publication of my novel feels like a distant dream (did it really happen?), and I’m still surprised and delighted when I come across my novel in a bookstore or when a reader writes to me.
The greatest change, though, is that I’m writing to you from France, where I’ve been since mid-March for the publication of the French translation. I usually return to France at least once a year to visit family—my husband is also French, and his parents live in Paris—but I hadn’t taken a plane since January 2020. The travel itself felt strange: packing a suitcase for a long, undefined stretch of time; the several PCR and rapid tests; walking through the empty JFK airport, boarding an almost empty plane, and having several rows of seats for myself; being light-headed from wearing a KN95 mask for ten hours and not eating on the plane; taking a train from Amsterdam to Paris, and arriving in a city that is so intensely familiar and yet changed. Our first week in Paris, a third lockdown was announced. Restaurants and non-essential stores were closed, there was a curfew at 7 pm, hospitals were saturated, and yet the streets seemed livelier than in New York. People around us seem to be looser with regulations, or maybe there’s a wider range of what is considered “safe”: for example, they wear masks in public spaces but still gather indoors for meals. Friends see their families on weekends. Others flout the curfew. The touristic sections of Paris are ghostly quiet, especially on weekdays, but on those warm sunny days, the parks become crowded, every inch taken up by picnickers. I’d forgotten about the smokers who walk around with their masks beneath their chins, blowing smoke onto the narrow sidewalks.
Remote work is encouraged but not mandated, so people still go in one day a week, and the metro is half-full; sometimes, all the seats are taken. Whereas in New York, I’d stopped taking the subway and lived an isolated life, aside from walking around Brooklyn, in Paris, I circulate. I’ve had meetings, interviews, and appointments all over the city that require me to go from one end to the other with the metro. How quickly one finds again the brisk city walk, the muscle memory there, and how natural it is to wear a mask all day. I remember those early days last year when I’d run down the stairs of our building, having forgotten my mask. Now I always carry a second one in my bag.
The Margot Affair is so vividly written, and this is especially apparent when you write about food. As you reflect on the story now, how would you say your relationship with food or cooking has changed the most as a result of writing the book?
I always thought my love of food and writing fiction was entirely separate. I didn’t see them in competition or even working in tandem, but rather fulfilling different needs, especially when it came to my novel and then my career as a recipe or cookbook editor. I knew food would inevitably seep into my fiction writing—I gravitate towards descriptions of meals and often think about what my characters were eating. Even for myself, food is never just nourishment or fuel; every meal is an invitation for creativity and pleasure, whether it’s a slice of toasted bread with butter and honey or a sandwich that requires traveling to the other end of Paris.
And yet, I didn’t set out to write a novel about food, nor did I see it as the central theme in my writing. I was genuinely surprised when many readers experienced my novel through the lens of food. One astute reader noticed that what I’m most interested in isn’t the food itself but rather the act of preparation and cooking.
Since publishing my novel and speaking with readers, I’m more aware of the space food occupies in my writing, how it’s embedded in the storytelling, and how often it’s about the preparation of a meal. Even for the simplest dinner of pasta with pre-grated cheese, I’ll describe boiling the water, opening the packet of cheese, etc. Scenes of eating and cooking allow me to create texture, build relationships between characters, and convey sensuality. I love how cooking and eating organically introduce a physicality to the characters through the movements of navigating a kitchen or the act of sitting down at a table to eat. It can give the characters something to do while they’re having a conversation, and those gestures can mirror their state of mind, perhaps make visible or embody their inner turmoil. Small details can be revealing of a character’s personality, like the fact that Margot’s mother always picks at the hot crust of a tart before it’s served, or that she doesn’t notice the unripe avocado flesh as she attempts to slice it into a salad.
I can’t tell if my approach to food and cooking has changed from writing this novel. It’s possible that I’m more intentional in how I write food into my fictional worlds, more willing to embrace its importance in my writing.
Sanaë’s Spring Food Diary
In the morning, cut a fresh croissant in half and toast it in the oven but keep an eye on the croissant as it can burn in seconds. Once it’s lightly toasted—golden and fragrant—spread it with your favorite jam. I like wild blueberry or apricot. Eat with your fingers, and don’t worry about getting any stains on The Margot Affair.
Lydia Davis writes in her short story “St. Martin:”
“What we found, when we searched the kitchen carefully, was some onions, an old but unopened box of pastry crust mix, a little fat, and a little dried milk. Out of this, we realized we could make an onion pie. We made it, baked it, cut ourselves two pieces, and put the rest back in the hot oven to cook a little more while we ate. It was surprisingly good.”
Inspired by her onion pie, I made my own with puff pastry, caramelized onions, and layers of Gruyère cheese. Serve warm alongside a salad or on its own, and remember to eat greens for dinner.
In the afternoon, bake a rhubarb cake with a buttery crumb, and plenty of sugar sprinkled on top to balance the rhubarb’s tartness. Cut a slice and savor with lightly whipped crème fraîche while you spend several hours reading one of my favorite novels, Walking on the Ceiling by Ayşegül Savaş.
What’s fueling your appetite for food—and life? What will you slow down (and speed up) this season?
One of my pleasures since the beginning of the pandemic has been to seek out pastries and bread on foot. Sometimes I’ll walk an hour in Brooklyn for a pain au chocolat or a loaf of sourdough bread. On weeks when everything around me felt like it was falling apart, these excursions with a simple destination fueled my appetite for food and life. Since I wasn’t taking the subway, had nowhere to be other than our apartment, and had very few (virtual) social plans, taking a long walk to a bakery was a special outing in itself, a cause for celebration. Put on my shoes, bundle up, secure my mask… It was a small adventure, not to mention the anticipation and thrill of eating the delicious treat after a long walk.
In the early weeks of spring last year, I’d walk forty-five minutes from my old apartment to L’imprimerie, one of my favorite bakeries in New York. (The other one I love is Nick + Sons.) I was also seeking comfort in those familiar flavors, pastries that reminded me of France. On those walks, I don’t listen to music or podcasts. I let my mind run wild and reflect on whatever I’m writing, and sometimes I’ll jot down notes. I wonder if there’ll be less time for these long, meandering pastry walks once we start taking the subway and meeting friends at restaurants.
While I’m in Paris, my days are moving along at a faster, more intense rhythm. I’m away from home for the first time in fourteen months, living out of a suitcase in Airbnbs and a friend’s empty apartment. On the one hand, there’s a slowness I’ve always associated with France—a more relaxed pace, pockets of time for pleasure, quiet mornings that my husband and I take advantage of as New York is still asleep. Some weekday mornings, we walk through a neighborhood, savoring the tourist-less streets, finding a patch of sun to bask in. On the other hand, I can feel the exhaustion of managing a packed schedule, running from one place to another, meeting new people, often working through the weekend, and sleeping shorter nights. We are both on a New York schedule, on our laptops until eleven pm. I can feel my body tensing up, yearning for a slower pace as it tries to keep up with the intensity. Two weeks ago, I crashed and had to nap between interviews! I’m looking forward to coming home soon.
What stories about food or creativity do you find yourself returning to during the spring months?
I don’t return to specific stories or novels based on the seasons, and I rarely reread entire books—there are too many other things to read and too little time!—however, there’s one short story I revisit for the food descriptions. I reread it right before flying to France. It’s called “St. Martin” by Lydia Davis. She writes in this beautiful, rhythmic prose about a married couple who are caretakers for a house in the South of France. They’ve run out of food and money and have just enough ingredients to make an onion pie. Reading this scene is always followed by an intense yearning for a French onion pie, and maybe explains why I’ve made three savory tarts in the past few weeks, using leeks instead of onions and covering them in spring vegetables.
There’s a French food publication I love called 180ºC. Each issue focuses on a season: summer, autumn, winter, and spring. The stories and photography are stunning. I read the recipes for inspiration, adapting them to suit my own tastes, like a red cabbage salad with roasted potatoes and walnuts from several years ago. I just bought the spring issue, which features strawberry recipes. Strawberries are in season in France, and we’ve been eating them almost every week—a luxury as they’re quite expensive. For dessert, I’ll serve them with barely sweetened crème fraîche and sablé cookies.