Look for the Helpers

January 4, 2017 · 14 comments


Am I safe here? the woman whispered.

She was tall and blonde and classically northern midwestern looking, and had come from just over the Wisconsin border to attend a memoir class I was teaching at The Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis.

Am I safe? 

Her voice quavered; strangers — all of us — shook our heads.


It was early in November, the day after an epic, divisive moment in time. We were in a beautiful classroom at a remarkable literary center in a lovely city filled with people of every color, religion, and political persuasion. Minneapolis is a place I had long wanted to visit, and to teach at The Loft was a long-held dream of mine, ever since I’d heard Natalie Goldberg talk about it more than twenty-five years ago. And on this morning, sustained by strong coffee and ensconced in a building that at its core is devoted to writers and books and the written word, a small handful of us who had never before set eyes on each other assured this woman that yes, she was safe. 

If not here, I said, then where. 

I recognized the telltale signs of anxiety that I know so well: for me, it comes from the unshakable certainty that one is unsafe. The nervous shifting, the eyes darting, the foot tapping, the frantic water drinking, the shallow breathing, the coat thrown on and off and on and off. Anything to keep moving, to keep running. For the anxious, stillness and quiet can be as unhinging as a night terror.

Add to this the fact that memoir — the teaching of it, the talking about it, the writing it: the permission, the memories, the emotional fortitude that it takes to plunge deep — is a gnarly bit of business; at best, it’s fraught. At worst, it can make the strongest of us feel ungrounded and unmoored and like our limbs are made of jello. Those of us who write it — who come back to the form over and over again — do so because we can’t not. We do it to uncoil our stories, to know our truths, to understand who we are through the specter of who we, and the people around us, once were.

Am I safe here.

Yes, we said. In my classroom, in my space, you are safe. But step outside into the wide world, and who knows about any of us, at any time.

(I didn’t mention that.)

By the time I arrived in Iowa for my next book event, I was depleted; I felt like an IV bag that had its contents forcibly squeezed out of it. I was shaky and nervous and unsure and exhausted. My writer/chef/restaurateur/publisher/county supervisor/devoted Unitarian friend Kurt picked me up in Cedar Rapids and dropped me off at my hotel, where I tried to nap; I met my writer/journalist/born-and-raised evangelical friend Lyz for lunch. No three people could come from more opposing histories, with more divergent views on everything from politics to religion; in fact, we have more in common than we know. We talked about safety and writing, about division and how to move forward into the unknown in a way that is sustaining and nurturing for all of us, not just some of us. We talked about being ferocious and fierce and kind and devoted to community and family — that those qualities aren’t mutually exclusive — and sitting opposite Lyz, my hands shook as I ate my carrot ginger soup at a lovely little cafe in Iowa City; I couldn’t manage anything more substantial than that.

Look for the helpers, Kurt said to me that night, quoting the late Fred Rogers; it was Kurt’s wife’s birthday and he had cold-smoked a pork shoulder for ten hours, and braised it in lamb stock into which he had sliced a few local Iowa apples. It was an earthy dinner, rooted in place and ground. Another couple — they were much older; we’ve seen it all, they said — came over to join us for Kim’s celebration, and to drink to friendship and safety and sustenance.

Look for the helpers, Kurt kept saying. Remember that.

I returned home from my book tour in early December. A few days later, just as I was beginning to unpack and start work on my next book, Motherland, my mother fell in her apartment. Surgeries. Rehab. A treacherous, bottom line-driven healthcare system designed to fail the people who need it most: its seniors, its children, its poor. What Dickens called, in A Christmas Carol, the surplus population.

What are we going to do, I cried to Susan after sixteen hours in the emergency room, and thirty without sleep. My mother never planned for a catastrophic event; my mother has always assumed it would happen to someone else.

Look for the helpers.

I did, and they were there: phonecalls, emails, advice from people I’ve known from my childhood in sleepaway camp, from my social worker yoga friends, from my neighbors, from a lawyer-turned-food-writer friend with a penchant for spreadsheets and information gathering. Facebook messages flew back and forth, and good wishes and prayers came from places I would have never thought would send them.

Weeks later, Susan and I tried to assemble a Christmas of sorts, with cousins around our table, wine, and simple food; it was a quiet time. The morning after Christmas, we were back in the emergency room, this time with Susan and a kidney stone. Sitting next to her, holding her hand, this person I’ve spent nearly twenty years with, and watching her in such excruciating, withering pain, it felt like it was just us and the world and a universe that was hitting us, repeatedly, with what one of my friends calls the shit stick. Humans are a beautiful, broken, feeble, complicated lot; our minds overtake our bodies. Our bodies overtake our minds. In the last year, I have had three healthy friends younger than I suffer heart attacks; they all survived, one barely. One of my dearest friends had brain surgery after collapsing in an exercise class. Another friend had a hiking accident that easily could have killed her. My cousin was diagnosed with cancer. A friend’s brother was nearly lost in a car accident. We put Addie, our sweet old yellow Lab to sleep in July, the day before Susan’s birthday. Our other dog was diagnosed with cancer; our cat stopped eating. We live in what Anne Lamott once referred to as the waiting room of the emergency ward.

Talking about food — the next great trend; the next cool technique — feels frivolous. How can I cook? How can I nourish myself and the people I love and my community?

How can I eat?

The world spins forward. Together, we lurch into the future, into that place where, now more than ever, we need the nurturing and the sustenance.

At 3:08 am each morning since my mother’s accident, I am catapulted awake; I hear Susan breathing softly next to me and the dog snoring on the floor. This is my home, the place that grounds me, that tethers me to the earth. This is my family.

The alarm will ring in two hours.

My student’s words careen around my Monkey Mind like a broken record.

Am I safe here?

I lay in the silence; I listen to the quiet.

I try to assure myself as I assured her.

You are safe here. 

I doze until the sun comes up, and I begin again.









Last week, I drove to Boston for readings and signings at the great Wellesley Books and Brookline Booksmith, the latter of which was my local independent bookseller in the 1980s when I was a student at Boston University.  Returning to Boston always feels like coming home, but it’s also bittersweet; it was the first place I lived alone, the first place I learned how to cook for myself (The simple: eggs, bowls of rice, steak, chicken soup. The tortured: pounded veal cutlets rolled around a filling of crispy pancetta and Fontina Val D’Aosta, and braised in dry Marsala fortified with a pound of butter. Vile.), the first place I discovered what being secretly, completely, hideously in love felt like.

This particular person cooked and so I did, too. That’s the way these things go.

At the time, it seemed incredible to me that someone my age could feed, nurture, and sustain herself and the people she cared about. Cooking, I thought, was an act reserved for older people — parents and grandparents — taking care of themselves and their families. People my age were why pizzerias and Cup-a-Noodle and sub shops were invented. I was sure of this.

Like most BU students, I crept my way further west down Commonwealth Avenue with each passing year, until I found myself no longer living in Boston, but in Allston, on the Brookline border. In the mid-1980s, it was a rough place to live; rumor had it that there were more cockroaches per square inch in Allston than people, and I once came home from my summer job as a Beacon Hill psychiatric practice assistant to my first apartment — an L-shaped studio directly upstairs from the area’s first Thai restaurant; every day, delicious clouds of lemongrass and curry wrapped themselves around me like a blanket — where I was greeted by a four inch-long water bug as exuberant as a puppy. My downstairs neighbor was a jet black-haired bass guitarist in a punk band that played every week at The Rathskeller in Kenmore Square ; he liked to position his amplifier on its back and crank the volume so loud that when he practiced, my shirts swayed back and forth in time where they hung in the closet. When I politely complained, he appeared at my door with a baseball bat, a row of safety pins piercing the entire width of his lower lip.

The 1980s.


BU Boathouse, Charles River, College of Liberal Arts, 1982

Every weekend during the school year and the summer, my ritual went something like this: wake, coffee, eat breakfast (eggs or oatmeal if I was feeling virtuous; cold, leftover pizza from T. Anthony if I was hungover, which I often was), walk into Brookline to the Booksmith, past the beautiful, sprawling Victorian homes with their deep, tidy porches and ancient, massive elms. I’d dream — this is what you do when you’re in college — about the future, about the object of my affection, about safety and security and love, about growing up and growing old in a rambling, drafty old house in Brookline with a massive kitchen and creaking floor boards. I’d imagine myself living there, and by the time I reached the bookstore, I’d be lost in a reverie undone only with the purchase of a stack of remaindered paperbacks, and, at the neighboring health food restaurant, an iceberg lettuce salad tossed with a handful of cold canned garbanzo beans, and a small, damp sandwich made from something called Mock Chick’n Surprise.

But living there was not to be; by the time I graduated in 1985, I couldn’t wait to leave. Most of my closest friends — there were seven of us — had graduated a year earlier and were gone. I had been in love for the first time in my life — wildly, stupidly, mind-bogglingly so; unrequited and embarrassing, it surprised both me and the object of my forbidden passion: a deeply devout, very straight, Episcopalian woman from western New York State — and everywhere I turned were reminders of us. The day after graduation, I packed my father’s rented U-Haul in less than an hour; when I arrived at my mother’s apartment in Manhattan that evening, I realized what I’d left behind in my haste to get on with my life as an adult: my rusted-out Ross Eurosport bicycle, a box of photographs of my college friends, a Vietnam-era Army jacket I’d found in a used clothing store at the start of my freshman year, the name patch —  Corporal Tedesco — beginning to fray with time. The only thing I took: my guitar, my clothes, my books, and the white and blue-flowered Correlle-wear service for twelve that my father bought for me when I moved into that first apartment: if I was actually going to cook, he said, I was damn well going to cook for someone other than myself.

I didn’t return to Boston for a long time; it was too hard. When I finally did, I imagined that I saw her everywhere, in quick glimpses out of the corner of my eye, down alleys and side streets where we used to walk after class, on leafy St. Paul Street in Brookline, at the vegetarian restaurant on Harvard Avenue, outside the Victorian house with the rambling, open kitchen where I was certain we’d live someday. The thought of her left me undone, and when I ran into her ten years later at the funeral of a mutual friend, she talked to me as though nothing had happened; the weight of our story had been carried only by me.

Did you ever learn how to cook, she asked.

I went to cooking school, I said.

She hugged me and smiled, and floated away like a ghost.


Allston and Brookline at sunset from 700 Commonwealth Avenue, 18th floor, C tower. 1982

When I arrived in Boston last week, the day after my Wellesley reading, I did what I always do when I first get there: I parked the car a little bit west of the building that was my freshman dorm — Warren Towers — and looked up at what had been my 18th floor window from 1981-1982. For one solid year, not yet out of my teens, I stood there and watched the sun set every night; I looked west into Brookline and imagined what my life would be like after graduation, where I would live, what I would become, who I would cook for, who I would love, and who would love me back.

Last week I stood on Commonwealth Avenue before my reading, gazed back at that eighteen year old girl and told her: she would find joy in the act of nurturing and sustaining others, and she would marry the love of her life, who actually loved her back. And that things would be good.

I wished her well, and drove to my reading.




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