THE SELF-SERVING SERVING WOMAN

When most people are questioned about past lives—assuming they believe that kind of thing – they always seem certain they are the living embodiment of someone powerful and famous like Cleopatra or Henry VIII or Catherine the Great. They really feel that mystical connection. No one is ever Joe Schmo in a past life.

To be fair I don’t exactly think of myself in a past life as Joe Schmo either. But I can never imagine myself as titan of the past. For me the fit is maybe a wild-haired, slightly disheveled serving woman.

This is probably because that’s pretty much what I find myself doing right now: compulsively making beds better left unmade, obsessively attempting to cook exotic specialty items like mejadra and shakshuka or anything lauded on Serious Eats. I have suddenly become an avid urban hunter of stray socks and crumpled t-shirts. It’s bizarre behavior for sure. The only thing that’s changed is that my boys, usually away at school, have been home this summer. I should be quietly blissful. But really. What is with me?

Here is the joke. They are perfectly capable of taking care of themselves. During the rest of the year they live on their own. They absorbed so much Food Network from babyhood onward that for them cooking is virtually instinctive. As for laundry, they figured out my big secret a while ago: that it’s actually not that hard to stuff clothes into a machine and remember to return when the cycle is finished.

But they come home and there they are. The same but imperceptibly different. Sort of like a cubist Picasso, I can almost see them shifting from as many changing angles. I’ve always known them. I should know them. But I feel so uncertain. They’ve grown. They’ve changed. How idiotic of me. How could they not? I’m their mother and I feel shy as middle-schooler at the 7th grade mixer.

Is it any wonder then that I hide behind baskets of laundry and rush to make platters of food? Is it good? Do they like it? Is there anything else they need? I am slightly ridiculous. They are kind. They don’t ask or need to be waited on but they seem to know that I need to do this. To hide a little until I can get used to them. To try to get to know them again.

And I do want to get to know them again. But I know that as soon as I feel I do the perspective will shift, as will they, and then they’ll be off.   But I’ll try again. And again. Getting to know them over and over. It’s what has to happen. It’s what’s meant to happen. You’ve guessed the only constant. Loving them always.

 

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THE ART OF EATING (ALONE)

I was standing in line for my obligatory take out salad recently when I saw something remarkable.

A girl came into the restaurant by herself. She was holding a book. She took a seat at a table and after a glance at the menu placed her order. Then, with a contented sigh, she opened her book and began to read. She was completely immersed and didn’t look up until her order came. There it was, a thick waffle with whipped cream and fruit. She sighed and looked pleased.   She then put down her book , picked up her knife and fork and gave lunch her full attention.  She ate slowly and deliberately and I am assuming very happily.

It occurred to me, as I scurried out the door with my foil-wrapped salad (which I planned to eat in my car with a plastic fork, while simultaneously scrolling through emails) one of us was on the right track and it didn’t seem to be me.

I have eaten literally thousands of salads in my lifetime. And don’t get me wrong, salads are a great thing to eat, nice, crunchy, healthy whatever. Which is fine. That is, if what one truly craves is in fact a salad.

When had I last given a menu an actual reading with the thought of what I might actually like—or need—to eat? When had I last made a date with a book to sit alone and unfettered, to be catered to and fed whatever lovely food I craved? And when was it that I ate what I wanted to eat, rather that what I thought I would look good eating?

I’m not sure I can answer that. I am not sure I want to answer that. But I should.

Over the years I’ve been to my fair share of events and luncheons, snake pit like affairs rife with remarkably toned and impossibly lithe women. Events where mammoth trays of wrap sandwiches and “litely” dressed pasta salads remained untouched as everyone elbowed their way to the fruit tray.

The hardest of events to bear were the teacher recognition lunches at my childrens’ schools. The teachers, who ostensibly were being feted by the way, had to eat because they wouldn’t survive the working afternoon without sustenance. But eating a plate of food was humiliating for them because the moms sitting with them at table ate virtually nothing. How could they? People were watching. I used to think it might have been kinder, made more sense if we’d just skipped the formal lunch and gave everyone take out bags to grab and eat in the privacy of their own kitchens. Or for the teachers, in the privacy of their empty classrooms. But as far as I know that never happened.

But that kind of eating alone, furtively, guiltily, and shrouded in privacy, is the antithesis of the solitary lunch the girl in the restaurant was reveling in. There is no real joy in self-righteously mashing through sprouts in public when in the back of your mind you just know you’re going to dive head first into a half gallon of mint chip at 2 am in your dark and otherwise empty kitchen.

There are far weightier issues in the world than personal weight, but for most of us, weight is a load for us all to carry, no matter what number is on the scale. How could it not be? For most of us our self-image is inextricably bound to how thin, or how fat, we feel on any given day.

Most people will say when they’ve lost weight, “I’ve won the battle.” Which is a wonderful thing, I’ve been there too. But if anyone else is like me that sense of pride and power is shadowed by the fears of it all insidiously creeping back. I’ve been literally terrified by eating, post diet, afraid to add anything to my own “self-approved list of diet-friendly foods” (you may insert “salad” in this spot).

And I grimly munch away, not tasting anything that I am eating. Not really appreciating anything that I am eating. In thinking about that salad in my bag, full of things like mango and pumpkin seeds and kale, that I don’t really like any of it. It’s not what I need right now. It’s one of the reasons I am looking longingly at the girl with her hot, crisp waffle, covered in whipped cream.

“Tell me what you eat and I’ll tell you what you are.” Long before Iron Chef rattled that brilliant aphorism to roof of the absurd “Kitchen Stadium”, Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin was focusing not simply on the pleasures of food, but on proclaiming the power of what we eat as the essence of self. Or in my case, perhaps the transformation of self.

The girl in the restaurant knew this instinctively. She sat calmly, almost regally at her table, savoring the meal she craved most at that moment . She took her time, appreciating and really tasting everything in front of her. She was enjoying the best company of all. Her own. She was, in essence, being supremely kind to herself.

And so, it is clear. It is time to make a luncheon date with myself.

***

The title, by the way is an expansion the title of MFK Fisher’s unparalleled compedium THE ART OF EATING, which contains some of her finest work, including

Serve It Forth, Consider the Oyster, How to Cook a Wolf, The Gastronomical Me, and An Alphabet of Gourmets

The most sublime and miraculous of food writers, Fisher’s career began with her excellent English translation of Brillat-Savarins’s The Physiology of Taste.

 

 

A ROOM OF ONE’S OWN: LARGE PRINT EDITION

Even if I were not deeply inclined towards introspective navel-gazing (which I clearly am or why else I would I be laboring over this blog thing) I know a sign when I see one. There it was in a 42 type font, staring at me from the library shelves. A ROOM OF ONE’S OWN: LARGE PRINT EDITION.

Oh please, is it just me, or does that fairly scream oxymoron?   A ROOM OF ONE’S OWN was on my 9th grade reading list in my all girl English class. I remember the provocative little paperback volume inviting us, urging us to think independently, to nurture our creativity, to never allow ourselves to be quashed out there the wide, wide world. And while all these years later I couldn’t recall the actual details of the book, the words “a room of one’s own” has held this allure and resonance that has lingered over my thoughts and hovered over my senses. It has to be true for so many of us. Wouldn’t it be amazing to see what each of us could create with a private space, secure funding and untethered responsibility?

Virginia Woolf gave the revolutionary talks that became A Room of One’s Own in 1929 when acceptance of women in any area outside the home was at best grudging, at worst, openly hostile. My classmates and I were bequeathed the scruffy paperback versions of the book nearly fifty years later. Times had changed.

Let’s briefly dial back the clock to approximately 1980. The flickery TV is on and the Enjoli perfume commercial blitzes onto the screen. You remember. An “8 hour perfume for the 24 hour woman.”

“I bring home the bacon! Fry it up in a pan. And never let you forget you’re a man.!”“ Ouch. Changing times indeed. But think about it, if thinking is even possible as you watch that feathered blond strut with a combination of aggression and suggestion towards the camera. What’s being sung here loosely translates to this: “Hey, Baby. You want it all, you can have it all. Do it. You asked for it, didn’t you?”

What’s particularly galling is that this twisted little passive/aggressive advertising fantasy was most likely penned by some guy. Under the guise of celebrating “womanhood” there’s this underlying challenge. So now women were to aspire to working a full-time job, having a house full of kids, looking fantastic at all times and still having enough energy to “read his tickity tock.” Do it, baby. She can.” Game on, right?

Hey, he bought her the perfume after all. But while I am not a social scientist nor do I have any claims on making an exhaustive study of women’s rights in the 20th century, I would argue that for all of the gains for women in that ensuing fifty years, making it as a woman had not really gotten that much easier than in V. Woolf’s day. We can’t do it all.

The gung-ho girls of Miss Rode’s 9th grade English class tried. I know I did. I went to college and then into book publishing which I will tell you honestly was intellectually stimulating, hugely fun and in some ways thoroughly annoying as most business are. Getting married at age 30 didn’t slow up the work life in the least, letting me indulge my “bringing home the bacon and frying it in a pan” fantasies to the fullest. Good for me.

I then dropped the frying pan when my husband and I had twins when I was 33. There was no part-time at that time, at least where I was working. While the job itself was sort of glamorous (the best perk being the free books) the balance was the very modest salary. Had I gone back full-time I still couldn’t quite afford to pay a sitter to take care of my sons. I chose to stay home with the boys. At least it was a choice—that in and of itself is a remarkable gain from Woolf’s time.

But the other parts of the Woolf equation continued to slide just out of my reach. For those of us who decided to have children no amount of money saved ever feels like quite enough.   Parenting, difficult and wonderful as it is, is in many ways the definition of responsibility. And the only “room of one’s own” in a house with children is the bathroom and often not even that. But if I wasn’t a fully developed intellectual wolf in my previous life I liked feeling that I was little by little working my way towards a world of deeper thinking. There was definitely a part of me that liked being defined by my business cards.

On the home front, driving on the squirrely back roads of the suburbs, straining to see over the massive hood my SUV (we needed the space in that thing, not the cachet of driving it) I was often dismissed as nothing more than a lamb of a soccer mom. Even though my children didn’t actually play soccer. But of course there is a massive difference in being a dutiful wife and mother because convention dictates that’s what one must be and actively choosing to be one. At least for a period of time.

But in spite of that, all these years later, squeezed into black spandex exercise wear and clutching Trader Joe’s bags, there’s a niggling sense of failure that taunts me. Of not being that bell-bottomed, hip-swinging,do it all, bacon bringer of the perfume ad. I felt thwarted. I felt ridiculous. I felt lost. Which is how I eventually found myself in the large print section of the library. I was pretending I was there because the large print section is an excellent place to snag hard-to-find titles. The truth, of course, is that the big type a whole lot easier on my middle-aged squint-vision. But then, right at my eye level, was A ROOM OF ONE’S OWN. In very big letters so maybe I wouldn’t miss it. Choice? Of course I had a choice. What I chose to do was stop pretending and think about Woolf’s provocative invitation once again.

Maybe when one comes face to face with a book like that, especially in very large letters , it’s not an oxymoron at all but instead a sure sign that perhaps one is not quite done yet. Woolf was encouraging women to stake a claim for themselves, to have courage in their thoughts and convictions, to not accept that things just are as they are, to find themselves and move forward. Excellent advice back in the day and for the future.

But rather than pine for a room of my own, perhaps I could just settle for some clear, quiet space in my head. Rather than feel defeated and demoralized because I couldn’t and can’t balance work/home/husband all at once all I can accept that maybe “having it all” doesn’t mean “having it all at precisely the same time. “ Maybe A ROOM OF ONE’S OWN is not simply about inventing one’s self but reinventing one’s self. A large print battle cry. Time will tell. Welcome to my attempts to live bravely and well. Welcome to the thinking that will fill that private “room” in my head. See you soon.