Post #56: The Mote Caught in an Updraft

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Head down, hands jammed in pockets, I know just where I am going.

I move into the diner with the singleminded determination of a swimmer chopping through the channel. The dissonant clash of voices  both happy and  harsh, crash against me like wave after wave of  ocean spray.  It is hard, hard, harder  to breathe.  I can’t breathe. I bob and dip and thrash until finally my body sighs safe into a booth. At last. By myself. I am here. 

A Spanish Omelette?  Oatmeal and Banana? Lentil Soup?  Turkey on Rye?  Lime Jello? What do I want? How do they taste? Does it matter?

When the waitress comes she gently arches her eyebrows. In return I slightly nod my head.  In a moment,  two poached eggs in a cup, toasted bagel dry, and  fruit cup are silently placed before me. She knows.

The hot coffee flows black and strong  into my cup, down my throat, seeping throughout my veins, suffusing my whole self. Bold and bracing even if I am not.

The sounds of voices rumble around me like missiles missing the mark.

I am surrounded.  How am I still safe?

I sit alone.  I am small. Insignificant. Ridiculous even.  I know. Squinty-eyed. Rumpled clothes askew. Hair flying every which way.  I know.

Will they laugh? Will they point? Will I notice? Will I care?

And yet.  Phalanxed behind my massive plastic coated menu, burrowed into the foxhole of my booth,  I remember:

  • my friend who snips from  her lilac bush each May to bring me an intoxicating, paper towel-wrapped bundle of spring
  • The bags of salted licorice my husband walks twenty blocks out of his way for
  • Life Goes to the Movies,  a yearned for surprise presented to me by my mother at The Little Gym
  • The Pink Ring of Power, better known as the Star Sapphire Power Ring from the Green Hornet, created out of star sapphires to fight against fear and hate. A gift from three intrepid crime fighters.
  • so much more

And then like one waking from slowly from slumber, my aching soul begins to sing and soar once again, like a mote caught in an updraft.

Two poached eggs, toasted bagel dry,  a cup of fruit. The platters are clean. I can move again.  It is time to leave.

When I rise this time I do not bob and I do not weave. I walk. Once again I am whole. Brave again and buoyed,  I float. And then, once again, I fly.

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DREAM OF WHO YOU’LL BE

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I’ve fallen in love not once but dozens—no, a multitude–of times. And that devotion has been returned hundreds of times over; each time I’ve turned the pages. All of us bookish people are like that, I guess. Passionate. Committed. And in some cases, really besotted. I just am.

But let’s face it, there’s always that sense of, if not “wearing your heart on your sleeve” it’s “brandishing your book like a shield.” Like so many other things about us, the clothes we choose to wear, the cars we choose to drive, the movies we choose to watch send out signals to the rest of the world, help define us. So too with the books we read.

It’s not really fair is it? All of us deserve the right to read something junky or lascivious or mysterious or politically charged if we so choose. People’s relationships with books, no matter what they read, is a very private matter as far as I’m concerned. It’s why, in the era before e-readers, subway riders smuggled their reading material around in little blank book jackets. A modicum of privacy in a very public space. But sadder still is the opposite—people who read, or at least brandish—books that they think they look good reading.

Anyone who can immerse herself so completely in a book that walking into walls becomes a very real hazard can’t be overly concerned with looking good by reading the book of the moment. And I’m not. Which is why I read, why I’ve always read, among other things, children’s books.

For me reading children’s books, everything from The Wind in the Willows to The Seven Silly Eaters, from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to The Quarrelling Book, from The Nutshell Library to The Big Alfie and Annie Rose Story Book (the list is endless, trust me) is not about reliving my childhood. It’s about being a glutton for good writing. And good writing of any sort is not just meant to be read but reread.

The best children’s books authors, think Margaret Wise Brown, Arnold Lobel, Charlotte Zolotow or Kevin Henkes, write poetry on a page. There can be no wasted words in great children’s books, no pandering, no puffery. It always makes me laugh when the celebrity of the moment (or that celebrity’s publicist) decides said celebrity needs to write a children’s book thinking it’s an easy fame grab. So many have done it, from Billy Crystal to Katie Couric, from Madonna to Whoopi Goldberg. They have no idea that they are wading into what is perhaps the most difficult writing form of all. The celebrity books flash fast and fizzle. The notable exception as a writer is Jamie Lee Curtis, whose quirky, funny and deeply felt books transcend celebrity. (see: When I Was Little: A Four Year Old’s Memoir of Her Youth)

Moreover, great children’s books are really written for children, without a smirk, a  hidden agenda or a knowing wink aimed at an adult audience.  I’d argue strenuously that’s even the case for the immensely complex books of Lewis Carroll, including the marvelous Alice in Wonderland. After all, Lewis Carroll himself said (in response to a letter written in 1880 about The Hunting of the Snark and reprinted in Martin Gardner’s The Annotated Snark) “I have a letter from you . . . asking me why don’t I explain the Snark?, a question I should have answered long ago. Let me answer it now—‘because I can’t. Are you able to explain things which you yourself don’t understand?”

And so I read and I reread, swirling deeper and deeper into some of my favorites each time. I remember who I was when I first read those words. I think I about who I am now. Beyond that I don’t analyze. I do something much more difficult. I feel.

Find your own favorites. Read them again. Remember who you were. Think about who you are. Dream of who you’ll be. There still is no better way to do it.

***

A (very) short list of a few of my favorites:

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame

The Nutshell Library by Maurice Sendak

Frog and Toad are Friends by Arnold Lobel

The Seven Silly Eaters by Mary Ann Hoberman, illustrated by Marla Frazee

The Quarreling Book by Charlotte Zolotow

Owl Babies by Martin Waddell, illustrated by Patrick Benson

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll

A BETTER DAY TOMORROW

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I hate the word but truly that’s what I am. At least about this. And since this essay is about words, let’s just do it, shall we? Just say it.

I’m a really awful prig. Thankfully not about everything. Really, I can even sit through most R rated movies like a big girl with hardly a raised eyebrow, good for me. But I am prig nonetheless. I am a word prig.

I’m not actually one of those tightly-wound grammarians self-righteously correcting complete strangers when they trip up on their tenses. My use of proper grammar, while decent, is what I would consider a work in progress.

But I am a lover of words. I love how they sound when spoken honestly and with conviction. I love the voices in my head when I read, which can sound like everyone from Teddy Roosevelt to Ella Fitzgerald to my mother, depending on what I’m reading. I love using them, choosing just the right one with the elegance and panache of Audrey Hepburn knotting a scarf around her neck. I love how certain words have a caress, others a rumble, and still more a resonance.

And like many lovers of words I am actually not a big talker. I think this is because choosing the right words takes time. Choosing the right word can be like trying to find just the right perfectly-shaped leaf on a windy fall day.

I’m a prig too, because I hate swearing, but not because I think swearing is a bad thing. People get mad, they have a right to get mad and they certainly have a right to express it. But that’s where things have gotten sticky. Let’s call a spade a spade. Let’s call a word a word.

When I was a little kid at summer camp we loved to swear, we lived to swear. We could find a way to squeeze swear words into the most innocuous sentences imaginable. !@#$% pancakes for breakfast again? Is it !@#$% sunny today? Want to play !@##$% jacks with me? Over and over and over. Just saying things we weren’t supposed to say felt fantastic. Empowering. Pleasantly bad.

Everyone was doing it so everyone did. And then we stopped. We did not stop because we were evolving into polite little humans. We stopped because by the time we returned home the swear words had lost their fangs. Say @##$% enough times and it’s boring, it just loses it’s power to shock. There were so many more creative and interesting ways of doing that.

Constant swearing is like starting in a bag of stale jelly beans. They’re awful, they’re unsatisfying but you keep plowing through feeling that if you keep going you’ll be sated. Never works. You’re just left with an empty bag and a sickly-sweet coating in your mouth.

That obviously wasn’t the taste I wanted on my tongue when I had little kids at home. Or on my lips with the children I work with at school. But there was still the fear of knee-jerk swearing in front of them. And so I worked up some milder alternatives, training myself so these would be the first words I’d grab for in tense moments: “Phooey” “Dang” “Crumb” and so on. Said with appropriate fury or conviction, as is the case, they usually work just fine.

This is true except when I’m almost hit by some self-absorbed woman in an SUV, careening haphazardly out of the local gourmet store, with a latte in one hand, a cell phone in the other. I am totally off the wagon here, so to speak, and fling swear words out like useless cannon fodder. But it’s utterly frustrating. The swear words I’m spitting aren’t ugly so much as impotent. No matter the awful words I’m saying, I am not actually saying what I want to say. Not getting the reaction I want to get. That’s the worst. No wonder swearing matches so often escalate to chaos like teetery tower of Jenga.

Using exactly the right words, quietly and with dignity, can truly quash complete fury though. I’ve seen it.

Ages ago when I lived in Brooklyn I was heading into the subway station during rush hour. A woman was standing at the token booth, furiously screaming every vicious epithet imaginable at the clerk. It wasn’t clear what sparked her anger but she was completely letting loose. When she paused for breath the token clerk said calmly, “I’m sorry, madam. I hope you have a better day tomorrow.” End of conversation. Game, set, match.

We all yearn to be understood. I don’t want to carelessly use words as mindless weapons. If I do, then how is anyone going to truly believe me when I say that I care or that I love them?

THE COLOR OF YOUR EYES

Some of the best things in my life almost never happened.

So there I was, nervous as all get out but attempting nonchalance by leaning against the cinderblock walls. I was waiting for my youngest son as he finished his first day of preschool.

The cool moms, to a woman clad in variations of the right workout gear, were all animatedly chatting. I longed to be animatedly chatting too but rarely managed it. I was usually uncomfortable because I could never figure out the right thing to wear at the right time or say the right thing at the right moment. To be fair, the women seemed nice. They probably were. But at that moment those women felt as distant and as unapproachable to me as the perfectly coiffed celebrities in People Magazine. This is a magazine, by the way, I profess to hate but will always read if a copy is in front of me.

As I was counting the minutes until my escape, I spotted a woman I’d seen earlier in the morning. We’d been at the elementary school helping set up the book fair, but we were rushed, we were working and we hadn’t actually met. I was sure she wouldn’t recognize me. If she did I was sure she didn’t want to bother talking to me. And so, not to humiliate myself, I pretended I hadn’t seen her. Like a little kid, I was actually staring at my shoes.

But then there were four shoes in my lowered field of vision, not just two. It was that woman of course. She said she saw me this morning at school and she also had a son in the other preschool class. She was going to take her son back to work at the elementary book fair in the afternoon. She asked if my son and were I going back there too.

We were. I said I’d meet her there. But the little boys hadn’t had lunch. So I didn’t head straight to the school. I went home. I packed two lunches: one for my son and one for hers and headed back over to the school to meet her. She reached out—I reached back.

This is the story of how I almost missed meeting the person who became one of my closest friends. And because I was so desperately shy, my son almost missed meeting the little boy who became, and still is, his best friend.

***

I was hot, grubby, and seriously underdressed when I got the call at work.   There was a dinner party at some elegant spot on the Upper East Side. The person on the other end of the line was actually begging me to come to this dinner. I was clearly a last minute fill in—she denied it. She applied some serious pressure—naturally I caved. There was no time to go home to change.

I arrived at the restaurant early, but couldn’t make myself walk through the door. I circled the block once. Then twice. Then again and again and again. Panic was rising with every circuit. I was going to bail out on this thing. I could feel it.  A million excuses crowded my brain I but couldn’t figure out which one sounded most plausible. At last, my immense sense of guilt about sneaking away overcame my immense sense of panic.   I pushed myself through the front door and was directed to a long table. There was one chair left and I slid into it. I found myself seated across from a tall, thin man with distinctive horn-rimmed glasses and a very kind face.  He was nice. In fact, he was much more than that. Had I used but one of my many excuses and headed back to Brooklyn I would have missed meeting the man who would eventually become my beloved husband, my soul-mate, the excellent and deeply caring father to our three sons and numerous cats.

***

Some of us are born knowing how to make small talk seem effortless, know when it’s proper to kiss on one cheek or two, know how to look people in the eye and really listen to what they’re saying.

Some of us are not.

I was lucky twice and who knows how many times more. But how many connections had I missed by not reaching out? What had I missed? Who had I missed? And then I realized an extraordinary thing.

I never knew the color of anyone’s eyes. I couldn’t know—how could I if I wasn’t really looking at them, focusing on them?

So I forced myself to look up and really look at people, not just at who they appeared to be but who they really might be. You can tell by the eyes.

A long time ago a woman reached out across a hallway to me and became my friend. A man with a kind face reached out to me across a table and became my husband.

It’s my turn to reach out first and wait for the reach back. When I really look in people’s eyes what I most often see is kindness.

 

 

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.