The Princess and the Deadly Pea: A Hopeful Ending with a Lesson

Here’s the thing about breast cancer: it has infuriating self-possession. When a lump decides to make an appearance, it does so on its own timetable, at its own discretion. Never mind that its unsuspecting host has much better things to do, like starting graduate school, writing blog posts, going to work, or just plain living her life, thank you.

Illustration by Edmund Dulac

Two months ago, I am taking a shower when I discover a tiny pea—a nothing, really—living inside my body. I try to ignore it. Hmm. What’s this? Eh, probably nothing. No less than two weeks later (How’s that for good timing?), I mention it to my doctor in passing—in passing, mind you! One mammogram, one targeted sonogram, and one core biopsy, and many, many sleepless nights later, a humorless radiologist informs me I am harboring a malignant lesion. The cancer, or BC as I call it (we’ve grown quite intimate), has burrowed into the softest, most tender tissue of my being, as if into a mattress, fully intending to grow there throughout the winter; or until I die, whichever comes faster.

“Good luck with that,” the radiologist says.

From that dreadful day on, the cancer works to undermine my princess-like composure, and I try everything to keep from folding under the stress. On good days I am optimistic, a positive thinker, who endeavors to remain in the moment. I have embraced the lesson that shit happens, that things fall apart (Thank you, Pema Chödrön), and I’ve never, ever deigned to think I was immune. Still, the bad days prove to be an unequal contest, because A) cancer doesn’t care, and B) I have way, way too much to lose.

Illustration by Edmund Dulac

So what I want to say to you—yes, you BC—is this: I’ve grown rather fond of my breasts. I really have. And I’d like to reserve the option to swim topless in the South of France, or do a silly fan dance with a 34B matching set. (Not that it’s any of your damn business how I spend my free time.)

I am not your typical cancer risk: I do not carry “the gene;” I have never smoked, I practice yoga, I am an on-again-off-again vegetarian. I wonder, was it the bacon?

This is how the bargaining with BC goes on inside my head during the excruciating weeks that follow:

Listen here, BC, because I adore my husband, because I love our family, our friends, our cats, our little house in the country, I am willing to trade you one lump of my precious flesh for 30, no 40, more years of living.

[Cackling maniacally]
I will see your measly lump of flesh and raise you your entire right breast, plus prescribe you chemotherapy!


Take it or leave it, lady.

Sorry, BC, no deal. I’m calling your bluff.

With that, BC reveals its weaker hand in a pathology report that reads: Stage 1a, contained. Translation: Prognosis good.

Life to be continued…

Illustration by Edmund Dulac

The moral of my story, ladies? If you haven’t done so yet, please oh please take a moment to schedule your annual mammogram. It just may save your life.

To see more incredible illustrations by Edmund Dulac, visit

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It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s the Art of Joyce Pensato!

During the long hungry days of winter, we don’t always make it up to Smallpeace as often as we’d like. Work schedules, weather challenges, and a bountiful calendar of cultural events in the city combine to keep us in Long Island City.

It’s not all bad, mind you. Manhattan and its surrounding boroughs provide much intellectual and social stimulation for jacking up those serotonin levels and beating back winter blues. And just last Thursday, I was reminded of how fortunate B and I are to have such easy access to New York’s vibrant art world.

I was introduced to Joyce Pensato’s work more than 10 years ago by my friend, the painter Susan Wanklyn, and have remained a fan of Pensato’s paintings and drawings ever since. Though her career stretches back decades, her work seems more current than ever. It has loosely been described as a combination of Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art, and features close-ups of cartoon characters you may or may not immediately recognize, including Donald Duck, the Cookie Monster, Homer Simpson, and Mickey Mouse.

Pensato flanked by two friends

When I attended the opening of her new show “Batman Returns” at the Friedrich Petzel Gallery in Chelsea, and was delighted to see that her latest canvases introduce a range of color beyond her requisite black and white and silver, and welcome back the beloved superhero who hasn’t made an appearance in her work since the 1990s. If you are in the area, try and stop by the show. My sad little iPhone pics don’t begin to do these images justice!

Joyce Pensato, “Batman Returns”

Friedrich Petzel Gallery, Tue – Sat 10am–6pm.

Ending: Sat Feb 25 10am–6pm

535 W 22nd St (between 10th and 11th Aves)

On a different note—and for an entirely exciting reason—I will be posting a little less frequently on Smallpeace throughout the month of February, as I prepare myself for my first semester of graduate school. That’s right, I’ve been accepted into The City College of New York’s graduate creative writing program and, not having been a student for…ahem…more years than I’d like to confess, I will need to take some extra time to adjust to being a student again.

Meanwhile, I will do my best to post whenever I have a spare moment and will return to Smallpeace in earnest as soon as the semester is successfully underway. Thank you for your patience, support, and continued interest in Smallpeace. Warmest, Michele

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The Way Back to Christmas Present

He appeared out of nowhere, forcing the scroogey couple to stop their car at the intersection of Christmas Past and Yet to Come. A jolly giant of a fellow with dark brown curls, he wore a green fur-lined robe and on his head a holly wreath set with shimmering icicles.

What are you doing, the stressed-out driver exclaimed. We might’ve hit you!

But the old man just nodded and smiled.

Let me show you, he said, let me show you the way back to the spirit of the season…

 yes, the couple cried at once. Please, show us! (Their heads still swirling with shopping lists and other end-of-the-year obligations.)

With that, their guide gave a firm shake of his torch and steered them off the Taconic and onto a complicated succession of unknown country back roads.

And that’s when it began. The smiling… The caroling…

The glowing and mistletoeing…

There was stopping and gawking at beautifully decked halls…

And best of all, there was very, very little shopping…

Thank you Ghost of Christmas Present, and warm wishes to one and all!

Hope you’re finding your own way of keeping the holidays in perspective.

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Grandma K’s Christmas Eve Pierogies

She’s been gone for too many years now, still how can I forget? The crackle of the frying pan, the heady scent of brown butter and caramelized onions. There she stands at the kitchen counter—shoulders hunched in concentration, her pretty hands working the dough to perfection, reciting the measurements from memory like a silent novena.

Regrettably, I was not the first one to adopt my grandmother’s tradition of making pierogies for Christmas Eve. But better late than never, right? Rather, it’s been my brother’s wife who has boldly taken up the mantle of official family pierogi-maker, helping us all to keep this beloved tradition alive. Kudos to you, C, and thank you for contributing this guest post to Smallpeace.

Grandma K, circa 1933

It was love at first sight when I first met my Polish-American husband 28 years ago. Shortly after we started dating, I spent my first Christmas with his family, and it was love at first bite when I tasted Grandma K’s pierogies!

I remember Grandma standing over the stove with her Christmas clothes carefully protected by a pretty apron, frying her pierogies in butter and onions. They were the most delicious things I’d ever tasted, and our family looks forward to eating them every Christmas Eve.

On the years when I am more organized, I try to assemble them early in the month and freeze them. Unlike Grandma, the thought of making these slightly labor-intensive delicacies on Christmas Eve is overwhelming. (I still don’t know how Grandma
did that.)

One year, Grandma was sweet enough to come to my kitchen and show me her famous pierogi-making technique, and there are a few tips I’d like to share with you here. This year, I enlisted the help of my 9-year-old daughter, and we made a day of making two batches. Our favorite fillings are sauerkraut and potato and cheese, but mushroom and onion and sweet fillings such as stewed prunes or cherries with a dusting of powdered sugar are also common.

Ingredients for dough:

1 egg

1 cup milk

1 cup water

3 Tbs sour cream

4 1/2 to 5 cups flour

Ingredients for fillings:

One “hunk” of mild-to-medium sharp (orange) cheddar cheese, cubed

Six Yukon Gold or Russet potatoes, peeled and boiled

1 package high-quality sauerkraut, drained and liquid reduced on stovetop

Chopped sweet onions for final sauté


Mix the wet ingredients together until blended. Here’s where my Mixmaster with the dough attachment comes in handy. Add flour one cup at a time until a nice consistency is formed that is not too dry and not too wet. Remove dough from mixer and turn out on a floured board. Divide into fourths and roll out the dough to desired thickness. Then, use a teacup or cutting form to cut out the circles that will eventually be stuffed.

For the sauerkraut, make sure to buy the best available. Eden Organic, Real Pickle, and Pickle Planet are a few brands that come to mind. Drain and put on the stove until most of the excess moisture evaporates. It’s important that the sauerkraut is dry, or it will cause the dough of the pierogi to become soggy.

Place a small amount of filling in center of a dough circle, use water on fingertips around edge then fold over and crimp the edges to form a half circle or moon shape. Place pierogies on sheet pan lined with cornmeal so they don’t stick.

Boil a big pot of water and drop in 4 to 5 pierogies at a time, leaving them in the water until they float. Meanwhile, brown butter and onions in a sauté pan. Transfer cooked pierogies to the pan and sauté them until golden brown, then transfer them to a casserole dish. At this point, the pierogies are ready to be eaten, or you can cover the dish with wax paper and foil and store in your freezer for later.

The next filling is potato cheese. Grandma was very clear on how this filling was prepared. She did allow me to use Yukon Golds but she preferred using Russet. Peel potatoes and cook in boiling salted water until done. Drain in a colander and add back to hot dry cooking pot. Meanwhile, cube orange cheddar cheese.

Perhaps because of my profession*—with its emphasis on healthy living—I was tempted to challenge Grandma on the quality of some of her ingredients. Here, I proposed using a higher-quality, sharper cheese. However, she insisted it had to be orange cheddar and, to this day and forever, that is what we will use.

Add the cubed cheddar to the potatoes and mash. Do not add anything else to the mash—no butter or cream—as the consistency needs to be dry.

Repeat steps for dough preparation and stuff your potato-cheese pierogies accordingly.

*A pioneer of restorative anatomical function, Corrie Egoscue Karas, together with her partner and husband, is the creator of Functionetiks, a hands-off, natural system of movements and exercises for addressing pain and dysfunction.

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Ode to Transformation

I have always taken a quiet comfort in the changing of the seasons. Even in times of deep despair, there is hope in the certainty that the landscape, now slipping into its winter torpor, will one day reawaken. There is such meaning in the natural rhythms of these cycles: death and birth, sleep and wakefulness, and everything that occurs in between.

I can feel the ebbing of the earth’s heartbeat, the advancing chill that steals in like smoke. The lines of light through the pines are cooler now, and wavering. The shadows are longer, and the frost-coated branches glisten like fire opals.

Our neighbor on the corner turned ninety this week. She has decided that it is no longer “cost effective” to buy a new mattress. I applaud her intimate relationship with death, but my throat catches just the same. I do not understand the lesson of aging. Why things waste away. (Though, admittedly, I have pondered youth and vitality far less.) The mystery of transformation, one thing into another, surely this is where the answers lie.

© Ber Murphy Photography 2011 – All rights reserved.

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Grace and Gratitude

Thanksgiving. What a wonderful holiday. It’s everything Black Friday and Cyber Monday aren’t. No television commercials, no malls, no wrapping, no power shopping. (Well, at least not for anything but Brussels sprouts and cranberries). Just friends, family, delicious food, and oodles and oodles of gratitude—for good health, simple abundance, and the opportunity to sit down together at one table on one coast.

We relish spending our Thanksgivings up at Smallpeace, which couldn’t be a more authentic setting. You can almost envision the pilgrims ambling up our road, trailed by a flock of wild turkeys. This year, we had a cozy group of seven, including my mother, brother, his wife and our niece and nephew, who were visiting from San Diego.

When we sat down at the table, we all said in turn what we were thankful for. Thanks ranged widely—for family, good health, our happy home, those we sorely miss, and, of course, turkey!

(No, not that turkey, silly!)

Befitting such a lovely occasion, we all tried to contribute a little something to making the table complete. My mom and I handled the turkey, which we pre-ordered from our local farm stand, The Berry Farm, and drizzled in drawn butter, stuffed with oranges and fresh herbs, then roasted to perfection in a 325 degree oven.

My artistic niece made custom placemats.

B made his signature apple crumble with our very own apples, while my sister-in-law roasted some vegetables and made two picture-perfect pumpkin pies.

B added the maple syrup, cream, and orange zest to the mashed sweet potatoes…

and I experimented with a tangy bread-stuffing recipe for my stuffing-loving brother that featured wild mushrooms, lemon zest, and herbs. This one’s a keeper, so check out the recipe below.

My brother and nephew did a great job of clearing the table—in more ways than one. And when it was all over, we all agreed that it was the best meal ever.

Here’s hoping you had the chance to spend Thanksgiving with someone you love, or at least took a moment to count the many blessings in your life. Even during these unpredictable times, we are all so very fortunate to live in this beautiful country, aren’t we?

Lemony-Mushroom Bread Stuffing

1/4 cup butter

2 small shallots

2 stalks celery

1 pound mixed wild mushrooms, sliced

1 teaspoon salt

1 egg

1 cup heavy cream

zest of one lemon

juice of two lemons

1 loaf (15-ounce) brioche or peasant loaf, cut into 1/2-inch cubes, and toasted in 400 degrees oven until golden brown

2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme

1/2 cup(s) low-sodium chicken broth


Heat oven to 350 degrees F. Lightly butter a 12 serving muffin tin and set aside. Melt 2 tablespoons butter in a large Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Finely chop shallots, thyme, and celery and cook in butter until soft, about 3 minutes. Add mushrooms and salt and brown until mushrooms release their liquid, about 2 minutes.

Remove from heat and toss with toasted bread ingredients.

Mix together all wet ingredients, including lemon zest and poor over bread and mushroom mixture. Add parsley. Combine.

Fill muffin tins, dot with remaining butter, and bake until heated through and top is golden, 30 to 40 minutes.

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To-Do #357: Reject Perfect

My Inbox is stacked so very high with assignments that you can barely see me typing away at my computer!

It would be so easy to become overwhelmed, though the reality of completing my “to-do” list before the workweek is over is no more than a silly pipe dream. “Perfect” has never been an adjective I could relate to, so I won’t even try. Instead, I’ll forgo perfect and do my best to continue to forge ahead. My reward: an entire week off for Thanksgiving and, oh yes, the chance to experience our beautiful, glistening city…

Image ©Ber Murphy 2010. All rights reserved.

through the eyes of these cutie pies…

If you don’t hear from me in the next week, come dig me out of cubicle 146F. Or better yet, stop by and see what’s doing at Smallpeace on Thanksgiving.


Michele (the Scribner)

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