Just Before We Eat

Thanksgiving day. Woke up slowly, to fat snow falling. Dizzying, storybook snow. I watch it, and it blinds me, as I listen to the news, and pull my quilt up, sipping dark, warm coffee. For the past week, I have had such anxiety pointed at this day. Monday, as my children catapulted themselves from the coffee table to my lap, arms outstretched, laughter ringing, it hit me. I will spend Thanksgiving without a stitch of tradition, without the hum of family of any kind. I won’t be alone, but in the company of friends and kind strangers. I realize that many people who face this holiday with the promise of familial idiosyncrasies may look at my lot and feel jealousy. I can understand. But, this being the first holiday that has been without familiarity, without reliable personalities (good or bad), and without my own children, it hit me harder than I thought. My first (and not last) Thanksgiving, without my children. Monday and Tuesday, I was nearly comatose with sorrow. One of my dearest friends, who is himself carrying a load of personal sadness at the moment, had to come over in the middle of the day on Tuesday, to grab me back into reality.

Add to this the thankless week it has been for everyone. Questionable justice in the death of a young black man, spurring denials of, or fierce arguments against deep seated civil issues in our country. The inevitable inability for people to see, and really see each other. The folly of our own constructs, and our own reactions. Death abroad, by purposeful, dogmatic actions. Death by slow, ignorant waste of resources. Death by accident. Death by natural causes. We’re turkeys, all of us, stuffed with stuffing, our skin blistering, our chests puffed out. How oddly we manage to invite, even as we cook.

I sit now, in my house that still smells from yesterday’s creations: simmering leeks, roasted garlic, unctuous duck fat, and balsamic. And I am looking back on these last few days of confusion with a particular curiosity. The feelings of hopelessness and frustration are not thick today, but they are close memories. Almost too close, and they cause me to wince. Today in the US, whether genuine or contrived, people will put aside all these harder pulsations of life, and mostly soften. Myself included. After all, the very snow outside is insisting of movement. As a flurry, it appears to be falling slowly, but if I track individual flakes, there is such a rush to the fall. Down, down, down, only to be caught in the caked masses silently coating the deck railing, and the table, seeming to actually stop time. How mixed, this message. How brutally nostalgic, yet gently hopeful.

And I wonder: What is the cause of the emotional shifts we need to make, the shifts that keep us breathing? Is it emotional exhaustion? Once at rock bottom, one cannot stay. One must, and will, come up for air. Whether it is just the need for oxygen, or the unbearable weight of despair itself, or the actual realization of a new perspective, or the combination of all these factors, we may never know. But here I am, alive in the snow, and quite unbelievably lucky, despite my trials. Here I am, and the heart always does float.  I am sitting here on Thanksgiving Day, feeling thankful. In fact, feeling almost foolish at the cacophony of scattered emotions, even though I cannot deny the reality of my earlier sorrow and despair, and the reality of my current, strange contentment. Wonder of wonders.

I begin designing a ticker tape of gratitude in my head, perhaps out of elementary habit. I find, as I always do, that it will not end. In fact, a short time ago, I attempted to sit down and make a written list of all the individuals who have helped me over the past year, both in small ways, and through large deeds. It remains a worthy exercise, but it also remains a draft, because there really aren’t words for it, and it turns out that I am so very thankful that I am fearful of my own gratitude. It, and the hope it pulls out of the very darkest moments, is larger than I am. And that is also a goodness, to which I’ll happily place myself in service.

Maybe this black sheep of a Thanksgiving has been the best possible landing for me this holiday season. A chance to glance more deeply, and hope more earnestly, and love more genuinely. We will not be able to avoid all these massive problems today, but we will, regardless of our circumstance, just take a time out. Hopefully, in our doing so, we will recognize our own folly, and own it. Hopefully we will question it and laugh at it, shamelessly. May we put this into our blessing, or better yet, spread it out on our laps like a big, silly napkin, cleverly washed and starched of past blunders, just before we eat.

Souvenir

As I child, I spoke French. From the time I was five, until I was seventeen, I was immersed in the language at school, beginning with the colors and the months of the year, the days of the week, and the four seasons. I remember singing French songs, embarrassment at the guttural “r”, and I remember my surprise when I learned that the book Good Night Moon was really an English story. I had thought that Au Revoir, La Lune was a special French story for the ears and hearts of French-speaking children. I remember dreaming in French. For the bulk of elementary school, we were taught through vocab drills and songs, small acquaintances and awkward courtship with the language, until a certain teacher introduced the concept of culture. Mme Tuck. I’ll never forget her. I think about her often, as I realize that so many little habits of mine began under her tutelage.

I make my number one with an elaborate, deep flag, and slash through sevens and z’s, just like the French. I probably picked this up because of Mme Tuck’s fierce and persistent admiration of French penmanship. I have a love for simple teacups, as they remind me of the etiquette lessons she gave us. She would stand at the door as we came in from lunch or music, and assess our posture as we entered the room. She would rate the way we seated ourselves at our desks, and she set up tea parties with slate blue ceramic dishes, to allow us to practice our manners. Je voudrais un café, s’il vous plait one seated child would bleat to the child acting as waiter. A slate blue cup, with a cadet blue rim would be presented, full of water of course. Merci beaucoup, Mademoiselle. I kept one of the blue cups for such a long time after.

Mme Tuck was messy, by many standards, but an inspiring, highly moral, artistic woman, all the same. She wore purplish lipstick, lace-bottomed leggings, and exotic jewelry. She had spent years in the Peace Corps, bore twin children on her own birthday, and she spoke eight languages fluently. I remember vividly her scrawling Arabic on the blackboard. We thought she was insane. Why Arabic, Mme? But now, looking back, I remember how beautiful that language looked up on the board. Like icing. Like lace. How long might I have gone without an awareness that one could read lace, make poetry of lace, if it hadn’t been for Mme Tuck, swirling up Arabic in chalk, just because? She read Les Miserables to us, first in English, then in French. She blasted Edith Piaf tunes, made us sing to the plants, and required every student to fashion a paper piano keyboard for the edge of her desk. Each morning, she would dim the lights, turn on Mozart (who is decidedly un-French, but cultured all the same), and make us play. Play! Joue! She would say. Sens la musique! And we did.

Mme was wildly emotional, not at all afraid to share the sharpness of life with ten year olds. We watched her fall in love, and she shamelessly cried for us as she spoke of the worry for her children. She signed her name, reliably, with a flourishing cartoon of a flower. She reread and repeated passages in Les Miserables and emphasized their emotion, as Fantine begged for salvation and mercy. Really, she gave us such a surface for diving. She taught us to tap our souls. She was highly principled, exasperated with poor behavior, emitting many Zut! And Mon Dieu! exclamations, along with the standard, you’ve-gone-too-far-and-now-you’ll-pay: ARRETE! JE SUIS TRES FATIGUE AVEC TOI, her voice rising predictably with each word. I can still see her feminine finger, pointing toward the guilty etudiant, while she clicked her tongue: Tck tck tck. Once she even required a bully to grovel on the floor, apologizing (Je suis desolee!!!), while the girl she had made fun of stood on a chair and towered above her bully. Mme Tuck worked a world of symbolism. She affected knowledge upon us. She was frightening, yes, but I loved her irrationally. After leaving her class, I continued my French studies almost out of emotional habit. Without question or complaint, I was attached.

I didn’t get to use my French in many practical ways once I was out of school. Confounding, in all my travels, I never made it to France. In Greece, I casually ran into a busker from Swaziland, who had a note in French at his feet. We spoke briefly. He had a smile full of broken, but beautifully white teeth. In Vietnam, I heard, and understood, the soliloquy of a mildly angry woman, on a bus in Ho Chi Minh City. Other than that, the language has remained mostly locked away inside my brain. I have felt it slowly dwindle within me, to my great, sincere regret. I have struggled to hold onto it. I speak it to my children randomly. There are short, perfunctory lines they expect and know the meaning of. From birth, they were mes petites, and when we all must go, we don’t just go, we Vas-y! Vite! Vite! I love hearing their little voices repeating the words back to me. The sound of French expressions is wonderful. They are emotional commandments, not just statements. Trouble with homework: tete dans les nuages! Going for a kiss: Baises! I’m using it even more now in my single parenthood. It feels appropriate and exotic. It’s something else that is all ours. As I recall tiny phrases, and have aha moments recovering lost vocab words during my commute, I feel less like I’ve given up on this thing that was such a huge part of my life.

Oddly, I find also that as I’m divorcing, French is coming back to me, somewhat more easily. With so many wonderful, colorful memories of the language, I have felt curious that it is coming back to me now. After all, divorce has been just about the saddest, longest sadness I’ve ever come to know. It is disturbing, un peu, that this great language of love and romance is dusting itself off in the eaves of my brain at the crossroads of serious betrayal and excess suffering. At a time of great loneliness, this is ironic. As this chapter of my life draws out finally, like a long, dark blade, I have such mixed emotions. Coeur confus. I remember Mme Tuck got a divorce while we were in her class, and the emotion came through. How could it not? But the French in everything made it seem more appropriate. Mme Tuck, her theatrical lessons, her sensitive French rants, her raw, rich, raving passion. She brought a language and a sense to emotional reality, and I am thankful. I realize, at this troubling moment in my life, that she somehow, in small ways, taught me how to do this, too.

Very soon now, I will sell off or abandon the last of my old life that I made from scratch. While any release is painful, I should ultimately feel relief, and I do. It’s time to move on. I said goodbye to all of that stuff a while ago. I haven’t set foot on my farm since June. I don’t go often to my business. I thought the grief I felt when I watched a caravan of my friends and family driving my stuff off of my farm in March, in a bizarre funeral procession of my old life, was the grief I would feel in general. I thought the loss I felt when I left my shop would be the limit of loss. But I admit now that with the end in sight, the loss feels limitless. Why, in the face of release, should one feel so defeated? I suppose it’s just the final boom. This. This really failed. And as I sit, with this mingled realization of freedom and blistering denouement, I think only French words do it justice. Disparu. Fini. J’abandonne.

I think about Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love, and consider that her journey to learn Italian after her divorce could be comparable. Maybe I’m calling up francais as reclamation of beauty, romance, and self-identity. But the more I think about it, it doesn’t feel that way. Hardly shiny and new, this feels old. Rough. Odd. I think of The Great Gatsby, boats against the current, born back ceaselessly into the past. Maybe my French, and everything that goes with it, is this prodigious recovered memory, and I’m subconsciously trying to use it towards change, to become un-anchored from what has come before. Or maybe, these memories are not unique, and French matters little. Maybe I’m just a trauma patient who, upon gathering her life and senses anew, finds deactivated parts of her brain suddenly firing with different energy.

And perhaps, peut-etre, this is about love. So many of my beliefs about love and commitment have been upended. So much of my faith in human relationships has been dashed. Are we capable of fighting for each other? Are we willing? Is solitude our best, least fussy state? Are weaknesses really allowed to us, or must we forge ahead, feigning as little sentience as possible, in order to seem appealing and, yes, strong? French is not all about love and éclairs. I’m pretty sure there was a guillotine in there somewhere, among other things. And love is not at all about gentle possibility. Sometimes, it is about hard, hard facts. But oh, mon Dieu, how we reduce things. Sometimes, we convince ourselves of so much smallness.

If I can think about my life not as a set of rules and patterns I must master, and more about the texture it has laid under my skin, I suppose I can let the idea of love hang around, no matter what the past has done. My Larousse can go beside my Neruda on the bookshelf. My memories of Mme, and my joy at the tiny recollections of French phrases are worth their weight on principle, but the imprint of their emotion has been priceless in my life. I look back with hilarious, big, revelatory memories. My one wish is that I would keep this up. Souvenez love? Remember? It’s that language we know. Practice. Remember, it’s the culture you inherit, and build.

The Only Certainty of Edges

Sitting and reading late last week, I heard a rustling in the woods by the house, more than once, and finally got up to make sure no one was stalking around in my yard. As soon as I emerged onto the porch, I heard an incredible scattering in the dry, leafy treetops. I had to squint to see through the branches to make sure it was true: the vultures have returned. Today, they are putting on the strangest show, distantly flying in a roving, circular formation, a cyclone made of birds. There must be forty of them going at it, with such theatrics. Birds on the outside turn inward, bringing birds at the core outward. It’s an incredible auger of flight, drilling sideways across the sky. My only conclusion is that it’s a game. Anything else, any higher meaning for such behavior would seem ridiculous. But, then.

I’ve spent today under the wings of music, and NPR, and books that give me ideas, make me ask questions. Yesterday was exhausting, and my hands are torn apart from three days of event prep culminating in dinner service for fifty, including a rattling crowd of about nine children, asking for pie, asking for pie, and asking for pie. I should probably get out of my house, see some people, drink a beverage or two, and stock up for the cold weather, but I’m thinking too hard to be interrupted by living.

It has been a high-minded Sunday, mostly. My work rakes its fingers through my brain over and over, as I forever endeavor to discover new connections between what matters and what is, so I can call it all worthwhile. I’m teaching a class late this week on energy use in food production, particularly animal agriculture. I’ve had the energy pyramid in my head all weekend, wondering whether creatures at different levels “owe” more to the energy base than others, and even more delicately, whether humans owe more or less based on their diets. It’s exhilarating thought; I put the vultures into their slot in the cycle, and wonder what carrion has them so excited today. I imagine what lies in the woods nearby, waiting to dissolve, and I find myself drawing diagrams for the class, about energy, and microenvironments. The study of edges, mostly: the flesh of dry aging meat, the zone between muscle and bone, the surface of the soil, coastlines, firebreaks, stream banks. Rich edges, all, stations for exchange. Their complexity has defied us since the beginning of human existence. Some of them we understand to be special, and we try to hold on. We try to grasp their workings so we can create a perfect experience for ourselves, as if we could assemble our lives with only the beginnings and endings of things, and have nothing to do with the apparent mediocrity of middle living. We want our worlds to be shiny, sharp. Fantastic. And further, we believe there can still be security there. But the only certainty of edges is extraordinary change, mind-blowing dynamism. And actually, the edges are not separate from the cores. They are the service centers for the middle matters, and all is connected, all necessary, all real.

Having been on an edge for such a time now, such a transition (sharper than it is shiny), I’m settling into the core now. I’m rather thankful, although I feel barely below the surface. A sudden freeze or thaw could throw me back into the fray. I think I probably live less carefully than I should.

But as the vultures twist past my window, above the tree line once more looking for fun, I can’t stop amusing myself with the thought that their turbulent dance is just like human relationships, human endeavors, both absurd and artful. Relevant and riveting at one moment and commonplace or un-catchy the next. I’m thankful for my friends, and my work, my life that is challenging me, keeping me alert, showing me new angles on concepts and practice that I have always loved. As I settle into the inner layers of it all, I am being given new edges to inspect, ends to peel back, and digging deeper. As if flying with a turning wind, I’m just loving what I love. I don’t much care the way it looks. It turns out, the deeper you go, the more it renews.

THEY ARE THE PRETTIEST THINGS

I have felt such a peculiar energy recently. Restless, insatiable, intolerable energy. Last weekend I bounced around from activity to event with the boys, trying to get it out of my system. It hasn’t necessarily felt good. It’s been difficult and uncomfortable, preventing focus and progress, causing me to avoid writing, to avoid any organized kind of thought.

Last night I tried to work it out with many happy culinary projects. An old-fashioned marmalade using boiled lemon seeds for pectin, the last pickles from the garden harvest, and some cured meat creations. As I stirred and stirred the marmalade, drinking wine, waiting, I heard the musical popping of the pickle jars sealing. I love that sound. I thought about all these projects with their exciting, unpredictable elements—just enough enzyme here, some osmosis there, just the right amount of heat. Pressure. And time. Precious time.

This morning, as I sat in the same little spot on my sofa where I sit everyday before dawn and think, I felt something of my own settling. A hollow pop. Something gelled. No wonder I feel so restless. I realize today that my new life seems much less new, and my old life seems much less real. Reality is very much now, and I have reached a certain resolve. I know what I believe, but I don’t know what is possible. I wrote that sentence last weekend, and felt frustrated. It felt like a defeat, like what is possible ought to be within the realm of what we believe. But this morning, it feels just fine. This may be the truest admission yet that what effects me most now is not the past, and not even what it has done to me, but where I will go next.

And that is fantastic.

All this wondering, questioning, and worrying. All this waiting, pressure, and time. Maybe it has come to something. Maybe I am ready, and that is this energy that has been bubbling.

Today, the past year seems so strange to me, like a horrible dream. But instead of waking up and reminding myself it’s just a dream, I have to remind myself that it was real. That it all truly happened, that I lived it, survived it inside of every moment, every word. I keep all the memories out of the way somewhere, recalling them mostly by choice now. There are still some that come to sour me, without my consent, but even then, I keep them at arm’s length, like watching a movie. I have an almost omniscient perspective. It feels odd and objective, when it is really very much my life. I am both thankful and disturbed by it, every time.

Come to think of it, I don’t even know how to tell a story of the past. I have no idea how to start, no idea how to illustrate its intricacy meaningfully. It’s all pictures, smells, and songs. Pieces. Ingredients? Seeds? Salt? Rind? The only thing I seem to know is now. All I seem to have is now, and what I have learned. What I have made.

In the last year, I have uncovered so many traumas, and as if blind I took each one of them, and held it in my hands, turning it over and over. Feeling it’s shape and texture. Describing it to myself. Describing why, and what it does. In the last three weeks, under quilts and cups of tea I have sat, in the same spot on my sofa with the brilliant light of winter coming from the warmer light of fall. Even the trees off of my deck have complied with this thinking, working their way into the therapy, as if it were prescribed by destiny for us to sit together, curing. Healing.

What I lay on the table before me now are acknowledgements. So many that started as questions, regrets, or accusations against myself. So many born from fear, and myth. I look at them now and they are the prettiest things. I haven’t many ideas yet what to do with them. But is that not the most heartfelt type of collection? The things you keep because you can’t help it, the whole meaning of them mattering less than the fact of how they make you feel? How insane and amazing, that many of these acknowledgements are not beautiful, and there is sadness among them, but their sitting there in my plain sight is such a perfect triumph. That the truth is painful and un-scenic and realized, and I am grateful all the same.

I am exhilarated, but surprised at this prospect of progress. I didn’t expect to feel better yet, what with so much work left to do. With so many logistical details of the past still holding me in their clutches. Still, I am overwhelmed at what I have accomplished. And I know what I believe. About what has happened, about myself, both my gifts and my shortcomings. About the ways I’ve worn on people, and the ways I have made them better. About what is right, honest, and whole. About the delicious things I have made. There is not a person, plant, or beast who can convince me otherwise.

Holy shit. Ready. Set. What if I am okay? What if today, and from now on, I can just go, and go?