The Thirteenth January

January 27, 2013 · 39 comments


It’s been a while since I’ve written, and I could come up with every excuse in the book: I’m getting ready for an extensive Poor Man’s Feast book signing tour in March and April (dates to come; I’m starting out west in some of my favorite spots in the world, and I hope to see many of you and have the chance to thank you for reading in person); my day job as an editor has gotten very busy; I’m writing a new book (more on that later; it’s a bit surprising although not in a Fifty Shades way); I had the flu; Susan had the flu; now my mother has the flu. All of these excuses are valid, certainly. Still, I feel like my Life, cap L, has started to run amok, like it’s a separate, stand-alone entity with a mind and Filofax all its own. This is what happens, I guess, when you don’t pay attention to the immediate life, small L, that is your existence; instead, you get sucked into a vortex that keeps you spinning like a Dervish and struggling to keep your head above water until you pass out in bed each night and wake up the next morning to start all over again. Rinse, repeat.

I’ve been reading a lot lately about something called shenpawhich translates more or less to “attachment.” Pema Chodron explains it more accurately as “getting hooked.” It’s a sticky feeling, she says; for me, it’s that old familiar grind that I get in the pit of my stomach that churns and growls when someone says something mean or outrageous to me, even if I know deep down that it’s their mishegas that’s causing them to say it, as opposed to my own (and believe me, I have plenty). I want to fix them, or help them, or just make things right, dammit, and I lay awake nights, worrying, propelled by a kind of psychic adrenalin rush. Shenpa is an unspecific compulsion, and therefore can be relatable to anything; it’s like not being able to scratch an itch, or not being able to refuse a drink if you’re an alcoholic, or not being able to keep yourself from getting engaged and sucked-in. You take the bait, whatever that bait is, and you’re off and running. Shenpa is a taxing, raging, unforgiving beast: it’s the devil on your shoulder. It’s like running a marathon while chained to a boulder. Forget about your day job — if you’re stuck in a shenpa-driven cyclone, there aren’t enough hours; there isn’t enough energy coursing through your veins. Best to step off the track, to pause, to breathe.

I know when shenpa has me by the throat by the way I cook, and the way I interact with Susan. My brain goes elsewhere; I go through the motions. Standing at the stove, I get distracted by something; suddenly, I absolutely have to check my Facebook page, or my Twitter feed, or my email to make sure that that person I’m engaged with in a psycho-emotional digital drama hasn’t responded, because then I have to respond. I’m making dinner for us, and those gorgeous pork chops (from the local spotted pig we had raised and slaughtered for us, and for which we had to purchase an expensive upright freezer)  that are sitting in the blazingly hot, 1932 Griswold skillet we inherited from Sue’s Aunt Ethel cook for a split second longer than they should because I wasn’t present in either mind or body. Shoe leather. Very expensive, artisanal, locally-raised, hormone-free shoe leather. Susan has lit the candles and set the dinner table with our pearl-handled Laguiole steak knives, which can’t even saw through the meat. She smiles and touches my hand and tells me it’s really okay. Honoring the pig and all that? Yeah. I’d really like to, I think to myself, but I can’t right now.

Shenpa, you crazy bastard, how are the kids?

Thirteen years ago this weekend, Susan and I went out on our first date; we found each other on-line and corresponded for three solid months before meeting, which contradicts Timothy Egan’s assertion in his recent New York Times blog post, The Hoax of Digital Lifethat on-line dating is “only the start of what led us down the road” of “commitment-free, surface-only living.” We were both proceeding cautiously: my last serious relationship — with a highly conflicted physician — had ended disastrously ten years earlier. Susan’s, also disastrous, had come to an end more recently. And while all of the people I met on line (unlike Manti Te’o‘s poor deleted girlfriend ) actually existed, they were not without their issues: one was married (to a man) with three children. Another chained her ancient Bichon to her radiator every night — just out of reach of her water bowl —to keep it from wandering around her apartment and peeing on her couch. Another was looking, she told me, for just a plutonic relationship. And then, there was Susan.

She was simultaneously shy and hilariously funny. She had a large dog — a Curly Coated Retriever named Macgillicuddy — with whom she shared her breakfast tea (lightly sweetened, with milk) and who, when she shook her head, would launch long strands of drool onto anything or anyone that happened to be nearby. Susan read Jane Kenyon and Donald Hall and M.F.K. Fisher, and kept an ancient, threadbare copy of Larousse Gastronomique on her nightstand. She had been a charter subscriber to Saveur, and remembered that Peggy Knickerbocker had written the article about the Old Stoves of North Beach. She loved stinky cheese, and simple food. She was in publishing, like me; we had mutual friends who never thought to introduce us. Eventually, we discovered that we had seen each other before — in 1986 — on a softball field (where else?) in Central Park, where my team (Avon Books) was being trounced by her team (Dell Books), and I had laughed at her because she was wearing bright red Sally Jesse Raphael glasses and matching knee braces.


It was a bitterly cold Saturday afternoon in 2000 when Susan and I finally met, at the Paley Center for Media in Manhattan; we sat through episode after episode of very early I Love Lucys — the ones with the Philip Morris ads — and had dinner that night at Titou, in Greenwich Village. Over cassoulet and duck confit and wine, we discovered our mutual fanaticism for roots music — we loved Hazel and Alice, and Emmylou Harris, and Ralph Stanley. She discovered that I hated beets; I learned that she hated cilantro although she adored Vietnamese food, which I found peculiar. And when we met the next morning for brunch at Christine’s Polish Kitchen in the East Village, we sat for four hours over plates of kielbasa and pierogi and eggs.

I can tell you what she was wearing (dark blue cable knit sweater). I can tell you the exact color of her eyes (green). I can tell you that we developed a sort of tunnel vision that morning; we couldn’t hear anything or anyone else around us, and when Svetlana, our nice Polish waitress with the white blonde braids asked us if we wanted more coffee, she had to repeat herself twelve times before we heard her. And I can tell you that when Susan noticed a tiny, quarter-inch long scar at the base of my right middle finger (the result of a freak accident when I was in sixth grade), I was done for.

Cooking for someone you love — planning what to make; shopping; standing in the kitchen and mincing and dicing and chopping with focus and undivided energy and attention — this is the very opposite of shenpa; it’s a presence of life and brain and heart that nothing can disrupt — not Facebook, not Twitter, not email, not some weird psychic energy suck that threatens to ensnare your mind and refocus your attention on things that don’t really exist. After that brunch, I knew that I wanted to cook for Susan and Susan alone, every day, and every night. I wanted to cook well, with love, and attention. And the following weekend, I did. I have, ever since.







{ 37 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Verilee January 27, 2013 at 4:58 pm

beautiful – blessings on your Anniversary.

2 Ladleah January 27, 2013 at 5:04 pm

ah, (as in a satisfied sigh)…just perfect. Your posts are always spot on in the way they resonate with me. Thank you for writing!

3 Elissa January 27, 2013 at 5:05 pm

Thanks so much Ladleah!

4 Elissa January 27, 2013 at 5:05 pm

Thanks Verilee–maybe we’ll cross paths again soon!

5 uncatim January 27, 2013 at 5:12 pm

How can one blog have so many “best ever” entries?

6 Elissa January 27, 2013 at 5:13 pm

Awww…thanks. x

7 Scotty Harris January 27, 2013 at 5:17 pm


8 tea_austen January 27, 2013 at 5:28 pm

This is wonderful–and not just because your how we met story has me smiling wide. I love your description of Life vs life. That’s why I moved to Seattle. I wanted more lower-case life.
Congratulations to you and Susan, and here’s to many more.
And that picture is pretty amazing.

9 Dena January 27, 2013 at 5:34 pm

Absolutely beautiful.

10 Elissa January 27, 2013 at 5:55 pm

Thank you so much Tea. See you soon. Lots more lower-case, for all of us. x

11 Elissa January 27, 2013 at 5:55 pm

Thanks Dena-

12 Maria January 27, 2013 at 6:20 pm

I needed that. So beautiful.

13 elizabeth January 27, 2013 at 6:58 pm

Full body chills after reading that lovely ode to your love. Just beautiful.

14 Elissa January 27, 2013 at 7:09 pm

Thanks Elizabeth.

15 Laura January 27, 2013 at 7:18 pm


16 Kathy Huffman January 27, 2013 at 10:29 pm

What a lovely, lovely story. Thanks for sharing.

17 Hannah January 27, 2013 at 11:33 pm

Elissa your love story gives me chills. And the reminder that cooking for those we love is a privilege and a blessing and should be – mostly – a holy task – thank you for that. Congratulations on thirteen Januarys. (Also, I hope that your book tour hints mean that you are coming to the Bay Area! I have preordered my copy and Amazon tells me I will have it on the very day it comes out … can’t wait).

18 mimijk January 28, 2013 at 5:36 am

Here is to more lower case l’s so you can enjoy all the capitol Love in your life..

19 Elissa January 28, 2013 at 5:52 am

Thanks so much Hannah. I’ll be at Omnivore on 3/20!

20 olga January 28, 2013 at 8:10 am

Congratulations to you guys — what a beautiful, lovely story!! Wishing you many more happy years together. I had to chuckle about the “plutonic” relationship. Ha.

Let us know when you do your east coast book tour. Hopefully something in NYC – it would be delightful to meet you in person!!

21 olga January 28, 2013 at 8:11 am

Also, re Jane Kenyon & Donald Hall. I got to meet the latter in high school. He read a poem that to this day makes me burst into tears: Names of Horses. And then he read one his wife wrote – I think it was called This Shirt. I laughed through my tears.

22 Cynthia A. January 28, 2013 at 8:51 am

Blessings on you both. Story telling, shoe leather, dog drool, and all.

23 Elissa January 28, 2013 at 9:29 am

Thanks so much Olga! I’ll definitely be reading in NYC, probably in early April. Would love to meet you!

24 Tori January 28, 2013 at 12:56 pm

Beautiful post. And thank you for introducing me to shenpa. I just read Pema Chodron’s post on it and wow…!

25 Arlene January 28, 2013 at 1:04 pm

True love is such a wonderful gift. I’m looking forward to the release of your book and am excited that a new one will be appearing down the road.

26 Elissa January 28, 2013 at 2:13 pm

Thanks so much Arlene– appreciated.

27 Elissa January 28, 2013 at 2:13 pm

Thanks T. xx

28 Sharon January 28, 2013 at 4:22 pm

Touching and heartfelt and beautifully crafted and all the things I already love about your writing.
But “Shenpa, you crazy bastard, how are the kids?”!
I nearly spat tea at my screen, I laughed so much.

29 Elissa January 28, 2013 at 4:25 pm

Glad I could make you spit out your tea, Sharon. Of course, it’s kin to “Fusilli, you crazy bastard…”

30 Victoria January 28, 2013 at 7:45 pm

“There is no spectacle on earth more appealing than that of a beautiful woman in the act of cooking dinner for someone she loves.” Thomas Wolf

31 Jennifer January 28, 2013 at 9:19 pm

Thank you so much for your post. Much love to you both.

32 Deborah Reid January 28, 2013 at 11:24 pm

Just a beautiful and gentle post. Thank You.

33 SMITH BITES January 30, 2013 at 9:40 am

every word of this piece is remarkable and memorable. i believe i’ve spent January as well as the previous 2 months living in Shenpa – although until this moment, i didn’t know ‘it’ had a name – and today i’m choosing to live in the lower case life. congratulations on your anniversary – here’s to many, many more

34 vanillasugarblog January 30, 2013 at 2:38 pm

since i’m still digesting every perfectly written and thought out sentence of your post, i am at a loss for a suitable response (which you deserve), i will just say you are such a great writer.
and of course this: “Shenpa, you crazy bastard, how are the kids?” is the best.
so now when i lie awake at night w obsessing over the stupidest things, i can now say “bring it Shenpa!”
happy anniversary to you both!

35 Elissa January 30, 2013 at 2:51 pm

Thanks so much!

36 Rachel Gaffney January 31, 2013 at 5:02 pm

Sitting here with my cup of tea, white lab laying beside me, tears in my eyes for two women I have never met, but somehow the love pours through the words and seeps through the screen.

37 Laura February 1, 2013 at 11:31 am

Shepna. So *that’s* what it’s called. Thank you. For naming that. I need to go read some more Pema, only dipped my toe into her work. Such a beautiful paean to love. You two are an inspiration. Blessings on you both.

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