Quiet in the Storm

December 16, 2015 · 34 comments

 

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Months ago, when the manuscript I’ve been working on was not yet finished, I signed up for a three-day silent meditation retreat at the Garrison Institute, a former Catholic monastery overlooking the Hudson River. I knew the retreat leaders well: Sylvia Boorstein and Sharon Salzberg have been among the foremost teachers and interpreters of the Metta Sutta for decades, and whenever I’m at a loss — whenever my heart cramps with fear and upset, whenever the tinge of angry bile threatens to choke me — I pick their books off my shelf and read them.

Back then, when I signed up and plunked down my shekels and convinced Susan to come with me, I had no idea where I would be once the retreat rolled around: I didn’t know whether my new book would be done, I didn’t know if I’d still be chained to my desk, I didn’t know whether I’d be fighting another in a long line of the lung infections that have plagued me now for three years, I didn’t know whether I’d be drowning under essay and article deadlines. I didn’t know whether I could disentangle myself from my mother’s gravitational orbit for three days without causing her major upset and tumult. (First stop meditation, she said. Next stop Moonies.) This is the quandary we face when we plan ahead: will we or won’t we? Can we or can’t we? Should we or shouldn’t we? Calendars are a leap of faith, a construct of optimism and whim: we will put one foot in front of the other, the clock will tick and time will pass; one hundred dinners will be eaten, one hundred dirty dishes washed, the sun will set, the sun will rise. Everything passes. Impermanence.

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It has taken me longer than I expected to write Treyf (which is partly why my presence here has been so infrequent; I’m back, though); when I began making notes for it, a little while after Poor Man’s Feast came out, I was certain that I knew exactly what I wanted it to be: a story of forbidden foods in my life and the lives of my parents and grandparents; A walk through the Talmudic minefields of the culinarily taboo during my childhood in 1960s and 1970s Forest Hills, New York — the days of key parties and fondue and Manson and Son of Sam and the 1977 Yankees; children where I lived grew up very quickly — when my father made Spam and eggs for breakfast just a few hours before my grandmother lit our shabbos candles and we ordered pizza for dinner, half sausage and half not. It was meant to be about changing mores at the table, about the cultural shape-shifting that takes place as the old gives way to the new, and we look back at the past from the vantage point of the future. How much do we cling to; how much do we relinquish without forgetting who we are? The table is our anchor, our silent witness knitting together our stories like Madame DeFarge as the days and months unspool; the table watches us change and grow at the most visceral level.

This is what Treyf was meant to be, and it is. But it also took on a mind of its own. The act of writing, like the act of cooking, forces you to come face to face with fluidity and change. You cede control to the work itself. You stand back and trust that the wormhole your narrative is dragging you down (try and fight it; good luck with that) is lit from within by a force you are acquainted with only in the dead of night, in your deepest dreams; you might not wind up where you planned to be and insofar as the physical process of writing is controlled by you, you very often will end up in another country entirely, as though a total stranger was driving your bus across borders you’ve only ever known to be forbidden.

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So Treyf became the story of rule-breaking well beyond the table, and how — if we are going to set our demons free and step into a future that is uniquely ours and that makes us who we are — we have to make a choice between what was, and what is. This, of course, is never easy, because change sucks and most of us hate it and fight it tooth and nail (I know I do). Also, people want you to be who they want you to be; you might have noticed that. They want you to remain who you always were; it’s tidier for everyone if you just stick to the script that they’re familiar with. When you step out of your own comfort zone — when you break the rules — you push other people out of their comfort zones, too. You risk disappointing them. And then, if love is really there, you wish each other well and you grow together into a new and different place. Or you don’t. So the writing of Treyf was complicated. As Faulkner (I’m pretty sure it was Faulkner) once said it whupped me but it ain’t killed me. Although, given the seven very serious lung infections I’ve had since 2013, it came close. 

And then Treyf was finished and I looked up and the world had completely changed (again) while I was busy writing; there was Paris and Bataclan and refugees and San Bernardino. There was Trump, and astonishingly frightening, xenophobic threats the likes of which my grandmother used to reminisce about when I was growing up. There were close friends who were suddenly fighting various illnesses, and children of other friends who were undergoing scary surgeries. Everything suddenly seemed much louder and almost blinding with intensity; non-stop violence and the sort of patriotic rage that my great uncle watched unfold on the streets of Vienna in 1938 shrieked and shouted at me, and I could barely make out what it was all saying in the way that a vindaloo can be so incendiary, you can’t actually taste the lamb. To calm myself and turn down the screeching noise, I stepped into our kitchen the way I always do when I’m unsettled and sad, but I forgot to focus on my task: I immolated the chicken and carbonized the steak and turned the pasta into spackle. One night, I boiled my favorite saucepan dry and then black, and set off the smoke alarm; I knocked over three expensive Burgundy glasses that fell one by one like dominoes before shattering into a million shards. 

This is what happens when you’re pitched off your center, when you’ve lost your balance, when you stop paying attention because if you don’t, the glare will be too bright, and the stimuli too stimulating. I looked at the calendar hanging on the fridge; months had passed since I signed up for the retreat at Garrison and suddenly, it was just days away. I had so much to do: revisions on Treyf, shopping for the holidays, filing my year-end articles, making donations to my favorite organizations. It would keep: Susan and I packed and went to Garrison and sat in silence for three days; we listened to Sharon and Sylvia and read the Metta Sutta.

Let none deceive another, Or despise any being in any state. Let none through anger or ill-will wish harm upon another.

We watched the sun rise and set and rise and set over the Hudson the way it has forever, and the way it always will; we put one foot in front of the other and moved forward with the calendar, into the end of the year. 

 

 

 

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Ghosts at My Table

October 21, 2015 · 17 comments

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In the fall of last year, Susan and I had a friend visit us for a few days; Simon, who is a remarkable line and watercolor artist specializing in, among other things, dig-side archeological academic renderings and sketches, was going through a challenging time, and we invited him to spend the weekend with us in Connecticut. On Sunday, before we put our friend back on the train for home, we visited the Yale Center for British Art, where, fortuitously, a show called Of Green Leaf, Bird, & Flower: Artists’ Books and the Natural World, which examine(d) the intersection of artistic and scientific interest in the natural world from the sixteenth century to the present day, was on exhibition. Many of the artists’ books were those belonging to amateur naturalists — women and men, mostly from the so-called leisure class, who, dating back to the late 1500s, took their pencils and nibs out into the fields and hills, and watched and looked and drew and clipped and tacked what they found into books. The books — leather-bound, small, like the modern-day Moleskines that many of us carry in our back pockets — were stained with time and sweat. They had a distinctly personal and almost illicit aura; looking at them made me feel both exhilarated and wary, like I was reading someone’s diary and being transported to their past.

There was an audio component to the exhibition: the curator, Elisabeth Fairman, included selections from The British Library’s Sonic Migrations, a massive collection of recorded environmental and wildlife sounds, which complemented the show: you could not only see amateur naturalist sketches of the European Robin, you could listen to it too. Among the audio selections was a birdsong — I don’t know whose it was — recorded in rural England in the early 1940s. As I stood there, headphones on and captivated by the sweet singing, I began to hear a distant low drone, a rumble I thought I was imagining until it grew louder and louder, disappearing for a moment and then returning only vaguely and remotely, until it was gone in a haze. According to the accompanying exhibit information, a squadron of RAF planes had flown over the recording site, maybe a field somewhere near Sussex — my geographical and admittedly romantic guess; Virgina Woolf’s Rodmell was in Sussex — on their way to Germany to execute a bombing mission.

Did they return? Was that inadvertent recording the last earthly trace of one, or two, or more of them?

I listened to it over and over again. I called Susan and Simon over to hear it. We passed the headphones back and forth and stared at each other, a little stunned and teary and wide-eyed, as though we had not only seen the past and heard it, we had somehow seen through it, from a different place in time and space. It was thrilling; it was terrifying. It made my stomach plunge and my throat tighten and the hair on my neck stand up. More than anything else, I found myself longing to know their fate: what were their names? Where were they from? What had they eaten that day?

Did they come home?

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Lately, I’ve been turning a lot to the past, and considering its significant role in the present: I’m in the end-throes of writing my second memoir (an explanation for my infrequent appearance here), some of which takes place in a long-ago time that was not mine per se, but that led up to, influenced, and became mine. Discussions of craft aside, how is it possible to write memoir from a time so distant that one has not actually, physically, been there? Because we — all of us, to a number — exist in a world entombed by story and history; none of us is born in a vacuum. We are the sum of the people and the stories that came before us; their histories make us who we are, for better and worse. I know that my father, a night fighter pilot during World War II who knew how to fly a plane before he could drive a car, came home on leave and was picked up by my grandfather at Floyd Bennett Airfield in Brooklyn; I know that when a Marine guard saluted my father as he came through the civilian gate, my grandfather watched closely, and said to his son, Velcome home, Captain America. I know this not because I was there, which I was not, but because my father fed me this story over and over again, like pabulum. And because I was not there, I can only imagine the supper that my grandmother had prepared for his return, because on the one hand, he told me she did, but on the other, she fed it to many of us — myself included —repeatedly through the years, as though it were a sacrament, an edible talisman, an anchor: chicken soup strained and strained again until it shimmered like liquid gold in the early evening light that came through the window off the fire escape facing Coney Island; the soup chicken, its skin removed, eaten warm with a slice of challah; a piece of chocolate cake from Ebinger’s; a glass of Sweet-Touch-Nee tea.

(They were not so big on vegetables in my grandmother’s house.)

It’s inevitably at the table where what we came from and who we turned into gets spun like silk into stories. It’s why we cling to the table like the life preserver it is: this is not news. When I eat Hungarian goulash and spaetzle, my maternal grandmother, Clara, is feeding it to me, and like always, she’s forgotten to take off her Persian lamb hat and is sweating over the stove; I’ve missed her every single minute of every day since she died in 1982, when I was in college. I cook her food; I keep her alive. When I make chicken soup and I strain it and strain it and strain it again the way my father’s mother, Bertha, did, I can hear her padding around in her house coat and slippers — the scuffed pearl ones that looked like ballet shoes — behind me in her Brooklyn kitchen, heaving open the heavy door of her ancient, bulbous Frigidaire, its vast metal handle wrapped around its fat waist like a girdle.

When you make the meatballs and gravy or apple strudel or chicken and dumplings or sausage and peppers or fried chicken or potato pierogi or whatever it is you associate with a particular person who has long since departed our carnal world, you bring them back from the dead. You taste their food, you catch a whiff of their Aqua-Net, you hear the shuffling of their heels on the linoleum; you close the gap not only between then and now, but heaven and earth, like the unintended, ghostly hum of pilots flying to Germany seventy-five years ago, fate unknown.

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