In the forest dark.

August 18, 2014 · 20 comments

Dark Forest

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,

ché la diritta via era smarrita.

Midway upon the journey of our life I found myself within a forest dark,

For the straightforward pathway had been lost.


Lost isn’t the half of it. The last few weeks have felt like humanity’s modern-day version of The Inferno. When I say “humanity,” I mean us. Us. The lot of us. The group of us. The earth of us. All of us. Us what got brung to the dance by God or Big Bang or whatever it is that works for you, whoever you are. The news has been so bad — really mindbogglingly hideous — that it seems to be resulting in one of three things, for most people: 1) a kind of endorphin-driven media shock that renders you incapable of doing anything but staring, gape-mouthed and wide-eyed, at television/Facebook/Twitter, like you’re watching a car crash while being injected with a surgical paralytic; 2) poison-mouthed cynicism bringing out the absolute worst in everyone; and 3) collective depression that could be temporarily relieved with a national Demerol hose-down, if only the authorities would agree to it instead of shooting young black men.

Personally, I’ve been feeling a little bit like the Malcolm McDowell character during the torture scene in A Clockwork Orange. NOW your eyes are open!

There’s Hamas and Israel, and Israel and Hamas. There’s ISIS who, apparently, even worries Al Qaeda. There’s Michael Brown, six bullets, and the war zone that is now Ferguson. There are the Yazidis, the Ukrainians, the Russians, and the Kurds; there’s Putin and Malaysia Airlines, Ebola and toxic rainbow bracelets, drought and fire, early hurricanes, and now, to further ratchet up our collective despair, the death of Robin Williams at his own hand.

As Anne Lamott said recently, Kurt Vonnegut couldn’t make this up.

Greenwich from train

And then, of course, what happens at times like this?

Everyone suddenly turns into an expert, pontificating like Ted Baxter reading the evening news.

People who know less about the history of the Middle East than, say, Zippy the Chimp, are authoritatively spewing their raging ignorance all over Facebook. Your Uncle Fred announces that he knows more about African flesh-eating diseases than the head of the CDC. And now, everyone — literally, everyone — has something to say about depression, about suicide, about the violent, inevitable end to which so many other-wordly talents seem to come. They have a position on it, or a comment to make, or an aside to consider. Mostly (with the exception of morons like Rush Limbaugh and Shepard Smith) I don’t think the commentary on suicide is nefarious. But when it comes to a tragedy like the loss of Robin Williams, we literally don’t know what to do about it beyond cling to each other in ways that are a peculiar, contradictory combination of ancient and modern: through story telling that brings us together via the anonymous, faceless vantage point of social media.

If the world was at a different place right now — if we weren’t witnessing the police state that Ferguson Missouri has become; if genocide and flesh-eating disease and starvation and frolicking children suddenly dead on a beach moments later weren’t part of our daily discourse; if we weren’t on the receiving end of a minute-by-minute barrage of suffering and death — I think that our response to Williams’s suicide might not have been quite the same. There would have been sadness, certainly, and shock, but I think it might have been different. I, like you, remember him from the 70s, when he was all goodness and light, and when life (beyond Nixon and Vietnam and Patty Hearst) was just not as complicated as it is now. We knew that no matter how awful things got, you could look at him and see kindness in his lovely, sad eyes; you also knew you would laugh your ass off. And you also knew he’d always be there.

We took his being there for granted, until he wasn’t. All we can do, in the midst of the world’s utter horror, is sit with this unfathomable grief for someone most of us never knew, who we need now more than ever. But is it his greatness that we miss? Or is it all about us, and our current existential desire to simply cling to someone who always made things okay like a human security blanket, while the world around us spins out of control?


Either way, we totally suck at grief in this country — how could we not, in this land of bullying, of trolls, of biting on bullets and being-a-man and stiff upper lips and staying in control; we have yet to learn that being sorrowful over death — over anything, for that matter — is not a moral failure but a human necessity, like breathing, and eating. The fact that we make grief emblematic of failure — the way we do addiction and depression — is partially to blame for the loss of so many who struggle alone, until it’s too late and they’ve fallen into the abyss. And then we wonder why.

My story is just like yours, or your brother’s, or your mother’s, or your sister’s, or the postman’s: I lost my beloved sweet cousin — one of my dearest friends — to suicide. The older brother of one of my childhood friends killed himself at twenty, after a short life of drug addiction and depression. My late father had once considered it, when his business collapsed and he was forced to declare bankruptcy; he told me this nonchalantly, years later while we were sitting in a diner eating corned beef hash and scrambled eggs in central Maine. Not long ago, in the darkest of nights, when I started to believe that some people were right about my being the loathsome creature they said I was and I found myself in an emotional pit I couldn’t climb out of, I considered it. I don’t know what or who walked me through that night, but something did, and I got help. I was still able to see a quick streak of light in the darkness, where my cousin could not because he, like Williams, was so very tragically, profoundly ill in a way that most of us can’t even imagine.

Why is this a national scourge? Why don’t all of the PSAs and petitions in the world seem to help? Because, if we’re a people who feel ooky about helping the grief-stricken (or about grieving, ourselves) — or we’re so fucking absorbed with taking the perfect selfie or checking our Facebook feed —  how on earth can we possibly develop the compassion and empathy that it takes to reach beyond ourselves and help the mentally ill and the addicted? I don’t know the answer to this question; it might have to do with faith, or living more simply and with less noise and chatter, or making it a point to spend more time with actual people than staring at a screen, or taking a torch to cynicism. Or all of the above.

So why am I writing about this on what is supposed to be a food blog?

Table set_Snapseed

Because, in any circle of hell — or heaven, for that matter —  the sharing of food is a life preserver. Four years ago, I wrote about a piece that Amanda Hesser published in the NY Times, shortly after 9/11: sharing food, she implied, was a form of psychic, emotional nourishment. And it seems to me that we need to do this now more than ever: it’s sustaining. It’s kindness. It’s elemental. It makes us who we are, this act of sitting down quietly with people, and feeding them, and ourselves. There is grace in the act of putting a bowl of soup in front of someone who is hungry, or somehow suffering, or not. Amidst the grievous noise and the fury, the rage and the death, there has got to be something to tie us together at times like this that is more visceral than, say, Twitter. The sharing of food, while it can’t heal the tragically ill or end wars or save the Yazidis, is a form of communion, whether we’re believers or we’re not. Being together, and not isolated, right now, is key.

After all — to twist what Ram Dass once said — we’re all just walking each other home, even in the forest dark.

Sun in Forest

Winter Wilted Greens and Potato Soup

(Recipe and image excerpted from The Kinfolk Table by Nathan Williams. Copyright 2013. Photographs by Leo Patrone.)

Unless you live in the southern hemisphere, it’s not winter; it’s nearing the beginning of the end of summer, and most of us probably aren’t thinking too much about bowls of warming soup right around now. Still, I was struck by the flavorful simplicity of this dish, which jumped out at me from the wonderful Kinfolk Magazines cookbook, The Kinfolk Table Cookbook. When I first began to buy the magazine, I was, admittedly, something of a cynic: everyone in it was so fresh-faced and scrubbed and calm — really, really calm — in a sort of bucolic, white-washed Danish-farmhouse-by-the-seaside kind of way. And then I began to realize that it represented something of a metaphysical oasis of sorts, which is why I find it hard to put down; it always seems to arrive when my life has spun out of control. The cookbook is filled with lovely, simple dishes to make — and share — with others; this delectable soup, which has a fresh Scandinavian feel to it thanks to the potato and dill, makes the leap from vegan (leave out the chicken) to hearty easily. It’s perfect for a small get-together and deeply comforting.

Winter Wilted Greens and Potato Soup

  Kinfolk Cover

Winter Wilted Greens and Potato Soup

Serves 4

3 tablespoons (45 milliliters) olive oil

1 yellow onion, thinly sliced

6 cups (1.4 liters) vegetable stock

2 garlic cloves, minced

1 pound (455 grams) red potatoes, scrubbed and cut into 1/2-inch (1.28-centimeter) pieces

1 small bunch of fresh dill, chopped

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

3 red chard leaves, torn into small pieces

3 lacinato kale leaves, torn into small pieces

2 cups (about 12 ounces/340 grams) shredded cooked chicken (optional)

Juice of 1/2 lemon

1. Heat 2 tablespoons (30 milliliters) of the olive oil in a large pot or Dutch oven over medium heat until shimmering. Add the onion and cook, stirring and adding small amounts of the stock to help steam the onion, for 5 minutes or until the onion is soft and translucent. Add the garlic and cook, stirring, for 1 minute or until fragrant.

2. Stir in the remaining stock, the potatoes, dill, 1 teaspoon (6 grams) salt, and 1/2 teaspoon pepper, and simmer over medium-low heat until just tender.

3. Heat the remaining 1 tablespoon (15 milliliters) olive oil in a medium skillet over medium heat until shimmering. Add the chard and kale and cook, stirring, for about 3 minutes or until wilted. Stir them into the pot.

4. Add the chicken, if using, and heat through, then season the soup with salt and pepper to taste and add the lemon juice. Serve.






with the night falling we are saying thank you
we are stopping on the bridges to bow for the railings
we are running out of the glass rooms
with our mouths full of food to look at the sky
and say thank you
we are standing by the water looking out
in different directions.

back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging
after funerals we are saying thank you
after the news of the dead
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you
looking up from tables we are saying thank you
in a culture up to its chin in shame
living in the stench it has chosen we are saying thank you

over telephones we are saying thank you
in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators
remembering wars and the police at the back door
and the beatings on stairs we are saying thank you
in the banks that use us we are saying thank you
with the crooks in office with the rich and fashionable
unchanged we go on saying thank you thank you

with the animals dying around us
our lost feelings we are saying thank you
with the forests falling faster than the minutes
of our lives we are saying thank you
with the words going out like cells of a brain
with the cities growing over us like the earth
we are saying thank you faster and faster
with nobody listening we are saying thank you
we are saying thank you and waving
dark though it is

–W.S. Merwin





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