Kick Her Right in the Teeth

This is the train that tried to eat my lug nuts. This is the tire store waiting room, where I am currently sitting. This is the chair I’m sitting in, a quite amazing lime green vinyl chair. I should preface this story with the confession that I am the flat tire queen. Since moving into my house in town, and living with nothing to lean on but my own devices, I’ve replaced three tires on my Volvo, after putting an entirely new set on in January. Yeah, I know. I don’t think it’s my fault. I work on a farm. I’ve picked up lots of screws from that road. Anyway, I’m leaving for work this morning, and walk out to find my tire flat. Again. Pull it out of the shed and get started removing. Crap. Of course. I remember now, the stupid Volvo has a magical nut in the middle of the wheel , which is different from all the other lug nuts, and requires a ½ inch socket wrench to remove. That’s right. The tire iron that comes with the vehicle won’t cut it. Sadly, every socket I’ve ever held in my hands has either belonged to, or been lost to, a truck belonging to a man in my life. Hmm.

I feel frustration rising, as I’m late for work, and not only do I not have a man around to smile at me over his coffee cup, or trace my rib bones with soft fingers, or make fun of all my stupid cuteness, I now have no default tire helper. (Woe is me.) I pull out the phone, trying to figure out which one of my chef/bartender/waiter friends to wake up from the neighborhood, or which ex-boyfriend or good friend to call at work and embarrassingly ask for a ½ inch socket. No. I won’t even. Not like I can drive to retrieve the tool, anyway. “So, hey. Yeah, it’s me. You got a ½ inch socket? Yeah, I have a flat tire. Can I borrow it? Actually can you bring it to me?” Geez. If that wouldn’t be giving in to the damsel in distress paradigm, I don’t know what. Hmm. Wonder if pliers will get it off? Nope. Pliers create a lot of tugging and cursing. I sit back into the driveway, cross my legs, and think. Duh! I should just go buy a socket. The Home Depot is right there. Yes! I take off walking.

Lovely day. The leaves are falling incessantly, like a rain of yellow flower petals. The air is cool, and the sky is cloudy. I keep my pace quick, in case it decides to rain. Also, when I was younger, and all the teachers were trying to instill the fear of womanhood into me, I retained a piece of advice along the lines of: If you’re a woman walking alone at night, or on a highway, remember to walk quickly, with your head up. Appear confident and fierce. While I realize this is total BS (much like the BS nut some genius designed to defy all standard tire tools in the center of my vehicle’s wheels), I do it anyway. It’s kind of great…anyway. Across the railroad bridge, into the store, I call work to say sorry. In and out of the store, now I’m clutching my new sockets, and I decide to open them up and make extra sure everything will fit on my wrench, which I cleverly brought with me, and like a total girl, took a picture of the BS nut on the BS wheel. Which I of course never looked at again.

So I’m crossing the lot, aiming for the side of the road, when lo and behold, this builder-man hits me with his truck. That’s right. My right hand is in my pocket, and this truck is suddenly right there. Bonk. It’s OK. I’m OK. He didn’t hit me hard. He jumps out, super apologetic. Hey, no big deal buddy. Yeah, it hurt a little but there probably won’t even be a bruise. He seems satisfied. Then, he looks at me with my package of sockets torn half open and my wrench in hand, and my phone. And my receipt. Did I need help with anything? No. No thanks. My tire’s flat, and now my arm hurts slightly from vehicular impact, but I’ll probably mostly use my hips and my legs to remove my flat tire anyway, like last time. And there is something slightly fun about hopping up and down atop a tire iron, using 115 pounds of lady to force the lug nuts loose, while acorns fall on your head. Thanks anyway, though. Onward.

Back up to the road, across the bridge, I’m still digging around in my pocket trying to get everything situated, when out flies one of my lug nuts, and begins to topple down. Down, down it goes, onto the tracks. Oh, and here comes a train. Perfect. Why did I do that? Ugh. Why did I even have my lug nuts in my pocket? Some stupid thing I have always done, to make sure I don’t lose them. Probably because when the Girl Scouts of America taught me to change a tire, they pulled out all the stops to make sure my frail brain took every precaution not to totally screw up. I wonder if a shortage of tools leading to a morning walk, and being hit slightly by a truck, and now watching a train roll over a lug nut (which was in my pocket so I wouldn’t lose it for crying out loud) means I have not entirely screwed this up already.

As the train comes to an end, I’m hopping down the hill to the tracks, trying to decide where to start looking. What a chore. The railroad bed is filled with gravel of course, each piece about the size of a lug nut. The lug nut is conveniently the same color as the railroad ties. The leaves continue to fall. I begin to laugh. It’s all so hilarious I can hardly stand it, and I realize that to anyone who might see me at his moment, I probably look like a lunatic. Hell, maybe I am a lunatic. I stop staring at the leaf and gravel maze and look up at the sky. I wonder how this morning has completely come apart at the seams, yet I am laughing in a ditch beside I-240, and the leaves are looking just lovely all the same. And how fortunate it is that I live within walking distance of the Home Depot. Perhaps nothing is falling apart anymore at all. Perhaps everything is working exactly as it should. I look back down. There’s the lug nut. Refreshing success.

Back to the house, I use my newly acquired socket to remove the BS nut from the BS wheel, put the spare tire on, load up my stuff, and drive down to the Discount Tire in Biltmore, where a charming older man receives me with a wink. He takes my BS car off of my hands, and delivers me to the delicious green vinyl chair in his room of hunting trophies and old gears. I mean, his Mountain Dew can cemetery…or, properly, his waiting room. He asks me if I want a smoke. How entirely old-fashioned and very kind, but no thank you. I probably should have said yes. We talk for a few moments, and he asks me about my work. He’s quite impressed.

You’re a good, solid country girl, that’s what you are he chatters at me. I realize that the winking is actually an endearing tick that he can’t help. He winks in time with his speech. I bet you take real good care of things, don’t ye? He laughed. You come back and see me, right? I’ll give you a good deal. Don’t see too many sturdy girls around here. I like you, honey. You come back tomorrow and I’ll have a new tire for ya, hear?

Yes sir. I like you too, sir. He runs my credit card through a decrepit old carbon copy slide machine, and chatters at the boys in the warehouse. I have an overwhelming urge to stay, here in this tire shop, in this green chair, for the rest of the day. Talking to these happy people, this winking old man. But then one of the attendants offers to pull my car out for me, so I walk the rest of the way to the bay door, bidding my new friend farewell. Have fun, hon! He hollers at me from within the cavern of the garage. I wave through the window and pull out onto the road. I realize how much of my morning has been de-fragmented, and simultaneously uplifted, by the fact that it is really very easy to change a tire, and I have done it many times, and people are entirely too impressed by women who can function, regardless of insane and doubtful fumbling. Fun is my middle name, sir. In fact, whenever that conditioned, BS damsel in distress inside comes rising up to the surface, it’s the epitome of fun to just kick her right in the teeth. What a brilliant morning. It’s going to be a killer day. If any of my lady friends want to meet for a 10am beer, to toast the veritable she-wolf in all of us, holler. I’m already late for work.

Tiny, Intricate Timepieces

The train passing reminds me to stop and take note of the moment. I’m sitting in the dark before dawn, watching through the window as poplar leaves, and the ginger plant, whip around at the wind’s mercy. Each small leaf is in the middle of an inevitable fall; all together they are making such a wondrous roar. There are distant sirens. The bare light from my string of bulbs in the kitchen throws itself into the shadows on the deck. Some time ago, I made a back-of-the-mind decision to take a mental snapshot of my surroundings each time the train went by. It has been mostly inconsequential each time, but each time links to the last time, and it is beginning to tell a story. A woman making coffee and all the day’s meals. A woman taping a child’s drawing to a wall. A woman getting out of the bath. Leaving for work. Paying the bills. I smile at these routine, microscopic moments. They underpin the life I have woven, just from questions, and bones. From thin strands of hope and remnants of the past.

Using the train to mark time passing is a self-made ritual to help me realize all the accidental rituals that make up my whole being. I have another self-made ritual, that involves sitting in the dark before dawn every morning, for at least 30 minutes. I’m not mediating, or working. I’m just sitting. I’m not allowed to talk to myself (which I am prone to doing) during this time. Coffee is allowed. Otherwise, it’s just time for sitting and thinking about whatever. I also have a ritual of making sure there is crème fraiche in the house, which is arguably necessary in a person’s life. I would obviously argue that it is. Making it, and the way it keeps itself alive, is a good project and a good process to witness. Over and over again, its richness is perfect. Its mild sourly flavor forever gratifies.

I remember writing once that the tiniest renewals that life requires—the making of one more meal, the washing of the plates again, the weekly watering of plants— these accidental rituals are the most restorative. The small iterations of progress and perseverance are the most shocking medicine for the soul. I challenge anyone with a broken heart, a tired resolve, a leaky faith, to assume the chores of a child, or begin paying attention to the small duties you may loathe. Sweep your stoop daily. Mother an orchid. Denounce your dishwasher. Befriend a cat. In these things I have found tiny, intricate timepieces, a world that is turning a bit more predictably, in shorter, more digestible courses.

It hit home for me one morning, after a night of grief, after I had awoken, made the bed without thinking, and then returned to the room sometime later. To my surprise, the den of my despair from the night before looked as if nothing had happened. The quilt was neatly tucked, the pillows were fluffed. Like a morning lake, I had written in my journal. No evidence there, except of the rolling on of time. I went and painted two small pictures that morning. One was of a huddled, hurting body. One was of the bed made up, and colorful. I hung them side by side in my kitchen, as a reminder.

I used to never make my bed. I’d say clever things like, “Making the bed takes five minutes I’d rather use to do something else,” or “You’re just going to un-make it later.” But for some odd reason, I have forced myself to do it, every single day, in my new life. Now, if it goes un-made, it bothers me. Imagine that. What all would I have known when I was younger, if only I had known that the act of making my bed might one day save me? The necessary piling and scattering of life, the turning over of everything, no matter how small, has been instrumental. In this new existence, I am reliably amazed at how much I relish the quotidian, tidy, thorough work of living.

To track and complete all the rituals of life alone, both those rituals that are necessary and those that are self-imposed, is astonishing. I’m sure I don’t want to do it like this forever, but I have seen a slice of what is possible. As I write this, I’m watching the wind take off all the leaves, both one by one and all-at-once, with this insane weather event. In a long, uncertain storm of my own, I have started to believe my own power.

I used to worry that I was expected to be made of iron, expected to endure sadnesses, trials, and mysteries with metal strength. But people are not made of steel, we are made of some other incredible stuff. Like clay, or glomalin, casein unfolding, or a spider’s silk. If I can make my bed reliably, striking into my room toward that task, even when I don’t want to do it, maybe I can get through another day. Week. Month. Or more. If I can link together all the pictures of this little, fractured family during the passing of the train, maybe I can pull out all the stops for these little boys in style. Maybe if I can sit in the dark every morning for thirty minutes, and be quiet with all these thoughts and fears, then I can learn to silently carry this crude contraption that’s on my heart, even as I work to dismantle it. If even souring cream can satisfy, what could possibly be missing?

PARSNIPS: THREE WAYS, or OVERCOMING A BITTER ROOT WITH COMPLEXITY

After putting a lot of spirit and emotion into reflective writing recently, I have been feeling extremely vulnerable. I feel exposed, unearthed, and somehow alienated. I realize that I have felt this way for much of my life- torn between social acceptance and independent creative expression. I find that people older than me are much more capable of seeing the complexity in me, and in others, and in situations of life. So, as a child, I found acceptance and comfort much more readily in adults than in my classmates. I continued to desperately want to find connection with my peers, but what I found more often than not, was fun, which I also value greatly. But connection and fun are only sometimes found together. I have, at too many times in my life, felt that the fun was not worth the game it required. That I, like it or not, am a person too raw of soul or uncompromised of spirit to peddle myself out, strategically, just as the world becomes ready. Still, I find myself, in moments of vulnerability, wanting to choose somehow, between art and society. And I wonder if the bitter root of living a life in service of connection and expression requires people to live in exile.

I think about writers I have looked up to. Sylvia Plath. Ezra Pound. I have so much respect for these people, who showed the world a way of seeing that was not mainstream, or comfortable. And I look at Plath not only for what she accomplished in our emotional consciousness, but also for what she achieved for women, and modern poetry as a whole. But, she stuck her head in an oven. She suffered greatly. And we learn, in literature classes, or in art school, that many of these creators were “unstable.” I wonder how many situations we could look at in depth and ask the question of whether the person was volatile, or the environment. When was it not that the struggle to choose created the exhaustion? Ezra Pound was a deeply wise artist, but his sanity was questioned, he spent years in confinement for treason.  Was there no one to go home to? No one who listened to his heart, and his breathing? No one who loved him despite his great, bleeding weaknesses, weaknesses that daily made life more difficult?

I cooked some parsnips and rutabagas in a demo class yesterday. I also taught a class on the science and manipulation of sauces. My head was filled with pictures of complex starches, and simple sugars, and the way we use them, the way we understand them on our palate. A root will be sweeter if the soil is right, and if conditions such as temperature and humidity favor the metabolism of complex molecules. Often, the variability of this is troublesome to the cook. Or the farmer. Or the eater.

I am by no means suggesting that I am Sylvia Plath, or Ezra Pound, or that my struggle is that of the snow-white cells of a turnip. But I do think that I identify with them, as many artists probably do. I am not about to go stick my head in an oven. I beg readers to see the complexity. And I beg myself to allow that complexity the liberty it will inevitably take with me. That I can write about the ways people persecute each other, or the sum total of happenings in a very hard week, and still be enamored with the color of the sky outside of my office, or excited to go and see my children. I may write unhappy truths, but I am not an unhappy woman. I may write of the duality within, but that doesn’t mean I’m unstable. I’m interested in building a better environment for life. All life, all the time.

Trying to temper the sharpness of each side of my personality seems like an elaborate game, and it isn’t my calling. I am good at food, and mostly good at living, but I may be unlucky at connection, unlucky at love. Men may come and go like cats, and be fed, but just as one cannot eat and eat and eat, there may be no one who can deal with this indefinitely. That is a bitter realization, which I can choose to accept, or try to overcome. Just as I beg others to see complexity in me, in an effort to bond, I should try to attack this parsnip with a combination of the principle and complexity that I so value.

Or, as my friend Pat says “Just don’t harvest until after a cold snap.” This is true, mostly, but when it comes to the daily work and rushing on of time, it isn’t always an option for sweetening the root.

So, in recognition and reverence of these thoughts, I give you Parsnips: Three ways. Or: Overcoming a Bitter Root with Complexity (and a bit of wine).

The principle preparation of the root is the same, here. Sautee the parsnips in onions, garlic, and butter to bring out their earthy aromas, then do a white wine reduction to sweeten and cook them through. Next, there is the option of three sauces, each favoring a different side of this lovably complex vegetable. Enjoy.

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TO COOK THE PARSNIPS:

No need to peel. The peel will not hurt you, and peeling will expend about seven minutes of your life that you won’t get back. Chop the parsnips into 1 inch cubes. For each four parsnips, dice one sweet onion, and mince two fat cloves of garlic.

In a large cast iron skillet, melt 2 tablespoons of butter. Add the garlic and onion and cook until soft. Add the parsnips, and cook until they begin to brown at the edges. Over medium heat, you’ll find your pan becoming rather dry and hot. This is good. That means it’s time to add white wine, just enough to surround the parsnips. Allow the wine to boil around the veggies until it is reduced to mere remnants in the pan. Time to remove from the heat, and sauce the parnsips. Choose one of the following:

MUSTARD SAUCE:

After the wine has reduced, add 1 T. brown sugar to the pan and stir to dissolve. Then, add 2 T. coarse ground mustard, and stir to coat the parsnips. Salt to taste and serve.

HORSERADISH & DILL:

After the wine has reduced, add ¼ C. horseradish cream sauce (preferably homemade), and 2 T. dried dill leaves. Stir to coat, salt to taste, and serve.

MISO SAUCE:

As the wine reduces, combine 2 T. toasted sesame oil, 1 T. mirin, 2 T. brown rice miso, 1 T rice wine vinegar, and 1 T maple syrup in a small bowl. As soon as the wine is reduced in the pan, pour the miso glaze over the parsnips and stir to coat. Salt to taste, and serve.