Editors Note:

I first met Nick Dantona how many years ago … 12? … 15? It’s hard to remember now, but it was when I was still co-director of SlowExposures Photo Festival. He came down with a group of photographers from Nashville for SlowE, a rowdy bunch of young(er) men who rode into town like cowboys and made the whole weekend better. They brought photos and stories, and helped hang signs, and opened bottles of wine, and danced with the single ladies at the Ball.

Nick stood out as the Smiling Buddha in the bunch. He is someone who genuinely cares about people and things other than himself. He’s curious, and loves discovering, and learning, and then chatting you up about it. In Big Conversations, with Grand Gestures, and Lots of Photographs to back it up. And laughter is his disarmament.

So, when I learned Nick had been given one hell of a bad diagnosis I was stunned. And sad. And then I was pissed. But, what I eventually took comfort in knowing was that with a spirit like Nick Dantona’s, and that love of life, and a damn fine soul, cancer may have just bitten off more than it could chew.

This was 7 years ago and he has gone on to prove my intuition right. In 2017 he called me up with his usual upbeat, happy, “wow, guess what I”m about to tell you!” voice to say he was going to the Balkans. The where? And why? When he returned he paired up with Barbara Griffin for a beautiful interview and story in SxSE (Barbara Griffin Interviews Nick Danton on The Balkan Dispatches). In 2019 he returned to Ecuador after 40 years to revisit the Panama Hat Trail and, once again, teamed up with Barbara for another wonderfully long, beautifully illustrated interview and story. (Bultos : The Significance of a Hat)

And, so, a couple of weeks ago I got another lovely missive from Nick. Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center had chosen his essay, his story, to be published and produced as video for their writing program, Visual Ink. 

Please find below Nick’s letter to you about the program, his essay, and images. And his Mama’s Minestrone recipe. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

–Nancy


Visible Ink

Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center houses a unique and important writing program called, Visible Ink. It is the largest writing program of its kind, welcoming writers of all ages at every level of education and experience – during treatment, after treatment, and throughout long-term survivorship.

Participants meet with mentors in person, over the phone, by email, or by video chat. Volunteer mentors include bestselling novelists, Tony and Emmy Award-winners, poets, journalists, teachers, and editors for major print and online publications.

Each year, Visible Ink selects from these submissions and publishes a printed anthology of stories, poems, tales, plays, memoirs, and essays. Some are also chosen for video production.  I have been honored to have my story, The Perfect Recipe, identified for both publication and production.

The process has been cathartic. Eight years ago, I was diagnosed with Stage IV Lung Cancer which had metastasized to the brain. I have witnessed and learned much during this long-term survivorship. It was this learning that I wanted to share. World-class medical care, love and support from friends and family, along with power of genuine prayer is a formula and a story that has been told. I wanted to express something that was closer to the bone; something only the afflicted would recognize.

We live in a death-phobic culture. We can hardly define Elderhood with any dignity, anymore. The expectation, from that same support group, that you fight like hell to survive is mighty, and truth be told, a bit debilitating.  Oddly, not wanting to disappoint anyone becomes part of the equation.  That is something not talked about much. The instinct to fight for life begins to blur the distinction, inevitability and grace of our mortality. No one that I encountered ever couched my predicament as a wonderful opportunity to pass into the sublime hereafter. Rather, we are ushered into a waiting room occupied by hopeless hope, fear, uncertainty and the whackiest alternatives you’ve ever heard. Anything not to face our cultural ineptitude of welcoming death.  No joy. No elation. No celebration. That happens after you’re gone. Faith, and the ministers of faith can help. But I believe there is gap they are missing. There must be a something between being sick and being in loving arms of God. I wanted my story to explore that place. A place where I was unshackled from hope. This would not be a popular message to share.

I was mentored by Visible Ink founder, Executive Director and novelist, Judith Kelman. Under her tutelage, a raw and difficult to express idea was transformed into a cogent narrative. Then, Visible Ink’s Artistic Director, Greg Kachejian brought the story to life by directing Tony Travostino, a seasoned professional actor, in a lovely video.

It’s been quite an honor to know and work with such supremely talented people. Their dedication to Visible Ink is matched only by their inexhaustible energy for this important program

Cancer has touched, in one manner or another, most of our lives. Cancer’s prevalence is staggering, its consequence even more so. Visible Ink brings you “inside the tent” where you can gather strength, insight, humor, heartbreak and love through the bonds of these shared stories.

This article is an invitation to that entrance, not a pitch for donations. But let me tell you from personal experience, you could do a lot worse than throwing a few bucks their way. I’ll leave the info and links below.

Much love,

Nick Dantona

Nick at the pot

 

My Essay:

The Perfect Recipe

I don’t want my Obit to read: After a long and courageous battle… No. No, no, no, no. Seven years past a Stage 4 diagnosis my struggle is evolving from a war with the Cancer Executioner to a wrestling match; actually, more of dance with the Angel Messenger who brought the news of my waning days.

Wrestling for what? Wrestling for meaning, not of my past but of today, tomorrow, and whatever other days are to come. This is hard work, like slashing through dark, dense jungle to reach a bright clearing. And let me be honest: hope does not live in that clearing. I do not want it to. Not because I don’t wish for more life, I do.  But I’d rather spend that time understanding how to welcome my end of days than extending the runway to a terminal-sedation send-off.

I would like this meaning to be simple. While raising our kids, their mother and I kept the message simple: for a fulfilling life you need a sense of curiosity, a sense of wonder, and a sense of humor. In my dance with the Angel Messenger, I am wrestling for the courage to remain curious about the possibilities of what a deepening life could be. I am grappling to stand in wonder of all things big and small that are awe inspiring. I am striving to laugh at the divine comedy that is our existence.

Because I am returning to those straightforward, yet difficult lessons, we can all experience a deeper enjoyment of each day. My kids and I are not burdened by hope. We are not distracted by grief. We are no longer hypnotized by the palliative mantra: If you can, you should. We are no longer death-phobic. We are curious about what possibilities remain and how to enjoy them fully.  We are in awe of the wondrous recipes we keep trying to perfect, like Grandma’s Minestrone soup which is a carnival of all that is good in the world. Each generation honors the inheritance yet modifies the ingredients to reflect its own time and its own knowing of things. A cube of potato from my great-grandmother to remind us of the importance of basics, a cauliflower floret added by her daughter introduces a new culture and the reward of open mindedness, my mother sprinkles a generous portion of chile pepper as a wake-up call, and I slip in a little miso paste for an umami flavor that coalesces all that came before me. In this way, we each imprint ourselves into something greater than ourselves. Even when the details of our lives fade, we are savored in some subtle way by future generations. The mystery of being sated and connected in some elusive way. The universal soup we all share.

This is the sheath to Cancer’s Sword of Damocles. This makes the Angel Messenger smile. We dance to our Stage Right exit conscious, light-hearted, connected, fearless and free.

 

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Lydia, Dottie, the Kitchen, The Bronx

Mamma’s Minestrone Recipe

Note: all veggies should cut to a size that would fit on a big soup spoon.

Green beans – tips removed, cut to bite-size pieces

Broccoli florets

Cauliflower florets

Cannellini beans/northern or white beans

Peas

Carrots – diced

Onions- diced

Zucchini – cut into wedge shaped pieces

Celery-diced

Chopped tomatoes -28oz can

Tomato paste-2 soup spoonfuls

Miso paste –  1 soup spoonful

Anchovies- 1 tin. Cut into pieces. Oil added to pot

Thyme- Optional.

Italian Spice mix or Herbs de Provence. About a cup of your palmful

Aleppo pepper

Bay leaf

Grated  parmigiano reggiano Cheese-2 cups

Parmesan cheese rind 1-2 inch piece

Olive oil

Chicken stock

 

Bring olive oil and anchovy oil to medium heat.

Add anchovy pieces and stir for 2 min.

Add onion and stir until translucent.

Add tomato paste and miso paste and stir for a few minutes until onions have started to caramelize

Add half of the herbs

Add carrots and celery, sprinkle a pinch of salt over them and stir for a few minutes until sweated.

Add the chicken stock. Bring to a simmer.

Add Green beans

Add Cauliflower

Add Broccoli

Return to simmer.

Add chopped tomatoes

Add zucchini

Add cannellini beans

Add cheese rind

Add bay leaf

Bring to vigorous simmer and cook partially covered for 30 minutes.

Uncover.

Add peas

Add grated cheese and stir.

Add remainder of herbs.

Add salt and Aleppo pepper to taste. (Favor being generous with the salt).

Low simmer for another 10 minutes.

Make sure the Minestrone has reduced by about 20%, or a velvety consistency.

 

Notes: once, after I added the cannellini beans, I left the pot unattended for over ten minutes and returned to find the soup at a raging boil. Frantic, I lowered it to a simmer and made sure nothing on the bottom was burnt. The high boil must have done something to the beans because this batch turned out be the best, creamiest minestrone I have ever made. Recommended only for the daring, courageous or desperate. Being fortified behind a few glasses of wine helps. I could never reproduce that consistency again. Regardless, the minestrone is always better the next day.

 

Tradition: whoever gets the cheese rind in their bowl, cleans up.


Nonna, Ruffa, Italy
my story: The Perfect Recipe: Video

 

https://youtu.be/ufnTMW3PZnw


Visible Ink 2022 Performances

https://visibleink.vimeo.mskcc.org


The full show:

——————————————————————————–Visible Ink Home Page

https://giving.mskcc.org/visible-ink

Nick’s website: ndantona.com