writing to survive
. . . only the retelling counts

Toss off that leaden cloak!

I’ve got Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill” going through my mind, tinny and dark like it sounded on the mix tape where I first heard it. The song brings up lazy late ‘80s stormy afternoons, as far away now as the late ‘50s were then (the kind of math that always stuns). Or I am back to a wintery Friday evening at Washington College, too early for my boyfriend to show up, and my roommate’s left town, and the dorms feel deserted, so I drink with the other misfits and show up drunk to the half-empty dining hall. These are humiliating times, where it is always dusk, the liminal moment, neither here nor there, also known as the gloaming. We can call it that because WC is a lit school with a Lit House. It has the biggest undergraduate writing prize in the U.S. We liked our fancy words.

My memories of those days are not sun-washed. It was always overcast or in between or the sky had flung its pierced curtain of darkness across the sky hours before, the moon pushing through only to lengthen the shadows. I was never fully present but kept trying to escape the recent past, to forget my hidden shame. In my quest to quell, to quench, I added to the burden.

Shame has the power to keep us in place. It is an ever-tightening garment, a binding of anger turned inward. It does not allow for flow. I carry that constriction. My future clients probably will, too. How would I guide a client to the point of self-forgiveness, to the shrugging off of shame? How do I guide myself?

Self-forgiveness is one of the reasons I started this blog over six years ago. I’ve done some bad things in my life, some of them within the lifespan of the blog, but the thing I thought I needed to forgive myself for was not completely my fault. When I was a teenager, my life blew up. I was unparented, essentially abandoned. After the explosion, I was left holding all the responsibility. That was my job, to take the pain away from the grownups, to contain the anxiety for the rest of us. Forgive myself for what? I played the role I was given. Nobody anticipated that it would be a life or death part.

I still carry shame for that time, for my actions as well as for my abandonment.
That felt personal. Over time, my shame became a heavy lead-laced cloak, me naked and trembling beneath. Reluctant to make myself vulnerable, to expose my shivering form, I pretended the cloak was a gossamer cover of insouciance. It was better to pretend than to show my true pitiful self. But over time, I pulled and ripped pieces of the cloak away until whole sections tore and dragged on the floor. As scary as that experience was, it was also freeing. I take more healthy risks, with great effort to be present as I do so, presenting myself as if I am fine with as is. I continue the process of shedding my shame.

can be done, in small concentrated moments or in huge, fantastical rips. Sometimes you will take those tattered pieces and reattach them. The process is not linear, but iterative. And I truly believe that everyone has the capacity within themselves to let go of those feelings and find the goodness within. Besides, shame is bullshit. A sham. The devil’s work. With guilt, you have the possibility to change, to do it differently next time. Shame traps you within yourself.

Gather up your strength and toss off that leaden cloak. Enlist help. Find someone to tug on one end while you pull on the other. Have a friend hold your hand as you let it drop to the floor. If you can do it, than I can, too. Because no one can do it alone. And that’s no crime. It’s a sign of strength.

Image from The Wit of the Staircase by the late Teresa Duncan. Her somewhat disturbing story can be found here. More here, from Vanity Fair. The things we stumble into . . .

Fly on with your funky mind

Charles is dead. He’s been dead for over a year, and maybe I knew and somehow forgot, but it came to me anew Monday night, when I searched for him on Google. One mugshot. One obituary. Charles.

I met him my senior year of college, at a law firm library where I had a part-time job filing updates in the looseleaf publications. In the little office he shared with his boss we would talk about my nights on the town and what DC was like when he arrived in the 1970s from Columbus, Ohio, about the church ladies who pursued him when he started up in the choir again, and of the damaging electromagnetic energy that he believed emanated from power lines and stations. We spent hours in that room, often talking past six p.m. because I worked late some nights and he waited out the commute.
Fly on, baby, fly on with your funky mind, was one of the expressions he jokingly used, a nod to the era of bellbottoms and wide-collared shirts, when DC still lived up to its George Clinton, Parliament-inspired moniker Chocolate City.

I was devoted to that city. Within a year of our conversations, however, I decamped to the Midwest for graduate school, on the assumption that I would return home in a year and a half. But I met a guy. We ended up in Charles’s hometown, eventually buying a house in the Olde Towne East neighborhood. It was then that I learned he had grown up across the street from our new place, in a house that had burned down. The lot, grassy and wide, was the only thing left.

I don’t know how to explain these sorts of connections, to figure out what the odds would be that I would end up in Columbus, living on the same block my friend grew up on. The threads that exist between people sometimes tangle and overlap, and there I was, buying a house on the street where he lived. But I haven’t seen or talked to Charles for a long time. When I tried him at the law firm a few years ago, he had retired the month before my call. I assumed he had gone back to Columbus. Maybe he did. Maybe he didn’t. I do know that’s where he died, in hospice.

So when I was back in the District for less than 48 hours, sitting in a chilled hotel room, looking out on the saturated evening air while the boy and his dad watched a movie, I remembered being 21 and those conversations I had with Charles in the winter twilight, his light teasing of me for my weekends in Chestertown, the way he referred to my beer of choice at the time, Samuel Adams, with its long gone tagline,
Brewer, Patriot and how he always asked about my friends. When I was lost in my first job and Columbus, lonely and occupying a self-imposed isolation, I would call him up at work from the pay phone in an underground food court, desperate to feel a connection to the life I used to have.

And he was kind to me. All of the time. So, fly on, baby. Fly on with your funky mind. I hope your ending was peaceful.

Image of the heavens over Chestertown by me.

Alternate universe

I smoothed my skirt and ordered the cheapest thing on the menu, the chicken, though I craved sweetbreads or a filet medium rare. Our server’s hands trembled as she opened the bottle of white wine, not because I was underage, but because the two of you had been an illicit item once. I knew about the source of her nerves, your Pizza Hut liaisons, the manager who slept with the waitress, the rug burns she explained away to her husband. I was new to this pursuit of appetites, too new to order the foods I wanted, too flattered to care about your past, the strange foreknowledge that I kept to myself. It was our first date, the first real date I’d ever had, and even though most of the story was heartbreak, it did not sully that night and the months that followed. The date was sweet, and loaded with the anticipation of being 19, admired from afar, and on the cusp of melodramatic love.

Twenty-five years later, I’m back here, almost to the beginning of the story, surrounded by a landscape that feels like home, a cultivated wilderness of corn and soybean fields interrupted by stands of trees, expanses of water and wetlands jigsawed into the coastline. Just like then, I am of this place and not, cannot make peace with pickup trucks and gun racks, conservatives and cases of Budweiser, heart attack breakfasts and chemical-laden fields.

What if I had gone right instead of left? What if I had stayed on the same road, lived her life instead of mine? I stand before you, a corkscrew in one hand, a chilled bottle in the other, the line dividing my forehead permanent, like these dark circles under my eyes. You and your date sit at the table in front of me. Your curls are fewer and grey, your face no longer clean-shaven. And maybe you’ve changed in other ways, too. But I am afraid you are the same old bullshit artist, the same struggling, damaged soul.

During my break, I smoke a cigarette out by the trash cans, and gaze across the muddy Chester. DC and California never happened. Ohio was the punch line to a joke. And the tremor in my hands is more gin than nerves, the shaky reminder of a life lived outside of my head. I am no longer me, and it is neither good nor bad. It just is.

But honestly, I’m glad I left.

Image of Huntingfield Creek by me.


Circumnavigating danger

I went to college in Washington, DC at the height of the late ‘80s/early ‘90s crack epidemic, which sounds ridiculous now, like I lived during the fall of the Rome or saw the pyramids go up across the dusty sands of Giza. But that increasingly long ago time was when I fell in love with the city. It was also the era of former Mayor for Life Marion Barry, whose famous quote “Bitch set me up” was printed on t-shirts after he was caught in a federal drug sting smoking crack in a hotel room with a former paramour. This was the city I committed myself to and thought I would never leave. My last year of college, I lived within walking distance of the Capitol building and often circumnavigated it in the middle of the night, my Walkman playing Nirvana, trapped in my own world, oblivious, and once pulled my boyfriend into the old growth azaleas in the outer reaches of the Capitol grounds after a night of margaritas and Mexican food. I was young and had no fear and so did stupid things.

The grownup me would tell my never-to-exist daughter not to do those things. Pay attention when you are out at night! What are you doing with that disrespectful man six years your senior? You are better than this. And my mother was anxious. One time she couldn’t get in touch with me and called my workplace to make sure that I wasn’t dead. Turns out I wasn’t. I just hadn’t gotten to my answering machine yet.

Whitney Houston said “crack is whack.” And crack destroyed a lot of lives in DC in those days, between the people who got hooked on the product and the young men
who shot each other in the wars, bystanders sometimes getting caught by the crossfire. I was in very little danger from the epidemic, even though its epicenter was not so far from my last city apartment. There were other dangers, the kind that anyone faces in a city, but when Martha and I had our reunion in the Penn Quarter (then just the city blocks around the Gallery Place Metro station), sobbing after a night at dc space and the beers and white Russians I cannot believe we actually drank, we had no sense of potential danger. Or maybe we didn’t care. But nothing serious ever happened.

We were very lucky, protected in some ways by our middle class white chick status, the only danger coming from within. Like the roofline we stood on one tequila-filled night, Martha and I balanced on the edge, sometimes slipping (on the booze or the ill-advised sex, on the slick layer of self-destructiveness), but never falling. We didn’t know we had anything to lose.

Heavily adapted from the prompt “Whack!”

Image from the
Architect of the Capitol.

Expletives deleted

Buttons was a barky little thing, accustomed to life with my grandfather where he had easy access to a fenced-in pen (after his predecessor, Greta, was hit by a car on one of her free-range neighborhood trots). When my college roommate Martha and I dog-sat, Buttons, out of his cigarette-smoke infused element, was dubious of our affections and wore a look of perpetual concern.

He was a sweet, likable dog, but that didn’t stop us from giving him the nickname Buttocks, or saying his walks were to relieve himself of “toxic” waste. Yes, Martha and I might have been playing grownup, with our apartment, percolated coffee, and tequila nights, but we weren’t exactly mature. Our humor was generally scatological and we were no strangers to expletives.

Freshly scarred by our difficult adolescences, battered by mixed-up family lives, already veterans of the physical followup to the male gaze, we knew so much and so little at the same time. We were glittered, posturing pretend-cynics, our scratched, hard sparkle protecting vulnerable emotion. But we were also close friends who could (and did) tell each other everything. We could be vulnerable with each other, and angry, too.

I miss that kind of all-encompassing friendship. It doesn’t exist in adulthood. It can’t. Adolescence and the early twenties are intense, and the friendships are, too. Then life with its complications, with its side characters and love interests, gets in the way. The slow falling out, the change in status and intimacy, hurts. It happened to me before Martha. It happened to me with Martha. I don’t imagine it will happen again.

Because I am a middle-aged lady now, my days of intensity behind me, my expletives deleted. Or that is how I am sometimes perceived. Case in point: Today, as I passed a group of high school students, when a girl in the group shouted fuck off! to a friend, one of her companions apologized to me for it! Sorry for her language, ma’am. It was a joke, really, a flirtation between the two, but hearing him call me ma’am along with his apology for “language” reminded me of my place. I have become a type, the delicate-eared ma’am. I’ve heard it before! I said. I should have yelled Thank you, sonny! and given a wink and jaunty wave. What did he know about me?

I want an an afternoon with Martha and the old Canon, the camera loaded with a roll of 400 speed black and white film. We would meet in town, have a drink at
Andy’s, take a series of candids on Chestertown’s side streets: here we are as we are now. Our conversation would be salty with “language” and stupid jokes. There would be no barriers, no awkwardness to remind us of the widening gulf between us. We would not act our age.

Perhaps we are always becoming. We move forward and circle back, we think and rethink, make and remake. I create my self through will and memory, through fiction and fact. Others may label me, fit me into a stereotype. But I know who I am and who I am capable of being.

Fuck ‘em.

Image of Buttons by me.

Pursuing the pointless

In the moonless dark of post-dusk, in the moments after the gloaming, I saw your ghost. It was you, the real thing, as you were a quarter century ago, no longer solid but ethereal, a translucent dream. The witching hour had just passed and yet you were there before me, wearing an oversized thrift store coat over a giant woolen orange turtleneck, with the baggy jeans and Doc Martens that were in fashion when I knew you.

It frightened me how quickly I could conjure you up, how I felt the slow tingle of addiction course through my veins. I wanted the thing I should not have. I had to be crafty to get it, to be a liar, a sneak. It was the feeling of getting away with something, the cool burn of whisky sipped from a flask in a car doing 90 down a one-lane dirt road and his hand was too high on my thigh, and all around us was dust like smoke, and it was only that moment that mattered, the moment before I got what I so badly wanted.

I could never possess you. I did not really want to. You were a symbol, a sign of my arrested development. At 18, I had the romantic maturity of a middle schooler with the body and quasi-freedom of a college freshman. It is only lately that my emotions have caught up with the rest of me. And I am so sad right now, so sad and slow, that for a moment I conjured you back, a boy with whom I barely spoke.

For I am slipping into the trough again, feeling low, incompetent, and bleak. I have accepted that I will never feel that frisson of danger again and am ok with that. Been there, done that, should have gone for therapy and antidepressants first. But as I slip, I wish there was another way to feel the thrill of pursuing the pointless, to get a little pick-me-up from the other side of the abyss.

A Helmut Lange 1967 fashion photograph from an article at the Daily Mail.

My illusion

If you are wondering if my curiosity about people from my past ever dies, here is your answer.

Last week, I did one of my periodic Internet searches on a guy I had a crush on in
college. College the first time around, freshman year, when I was 18 and the bruises were still fresh and my roommate dropped out midyear to get the help she needed. C was tall, dark-eyed, and mysterious, the kind of guy who dressed in thrift store overcoats, drank whiskey, and smoked cigarettes while listening to Joy Division. In fact, he was the one who introduced me to Joy Division. He was a senior with a mysterious past, including a year spent slumming the streets in some Portuguese town, running drugs or laundering money or some such impossibly romantic story.

I became obsessed, as I was wont to do. My interest was obvious. I was rewarded with one awkward night in which God’s existence was confirmed, but things between me and C clearly were not going anywhere. I wrote a short story about him that got a good response from my English professor (“Carl* is tall, dark, and handsome” was its killer opening line). I tracked C down one drunken night after I had dropped out of school and he was in graduate school in a faraway city. I haven’t talked to him since, or if I have, I have also blocked the humiliating memory out of my consciousness.

In the age of social media, we are sometimes inadvertently exposed to our past. Hook-ups become Facebook friends. Exes show up on LinkedIn. And sometimes a yearly search gives a girl more information than she expected. So I did a search of C’s full name and the college we both attended and – boom – there he was. My first response was –
this guy?

Granted, it’s been 25 years. If C was still dressing in thrift store overcoats, a tangle of dark curls piled above his furrowed brow (and those brown eyes), an unfiltered cigarette dangling from his pouty lips . . . well, that would be strange. Instead, he looks perfectly pedestrian, another surprisingly well-preserved guy pushing 50. And he has a lot less hair.

I have no desire to reach out to C. That would be even stranger than looking him up in the first place. My curiosity is satisfied. But he remains another character for the borrowing, someone whose lips once touched mine, whose breath was bitter with tobacco and sweet with whiskey. He wrote poetry in Spanish and preferred girls with accents. So he took off for France in the early 1990s with a woman and no thought for the country he left behind.

I can still conjure him, real as the fire that slowly dies in front of me.


*Not his real name or his real initial.

Title borrowed in part from a line in the Joy Division song

I have not yet made a decision about grad school. I keep on thinking, talking about it, and lighting fires that I can stare into.

Image of Joy Division from

Joy, sadness, fear and all

The last time I did this, I lived alone. I went to school to home to work to home. Sometimes I parked myself at a reading room in the Library of Congress or I sat by myself in the student lounge at CUA eating a homemade lunch and reading philosophy or Shakespeare. On weekends, I went to Chestertown to see Martha or took a Greyhound bus to a dotpoint town on the Eastern Shore to meet J for a weekend of touch and go.

I didn’t have much of a life then, though I was busy with work and school and preparing for comps that last year at Catholic. Once I got to Illinois, where the library science classes felt basic, the coursework easy, and my time ample, I had even less of a life, and so I started to crumble before I regrouped and tiptoed out into the world.

Last night, after the elementary school open house, when my husband came home from a different, work-related meeting, we each deconstructed our night to the other. My role at home is changing, life is expanding, and his new job offers him so much more, and in the middle is this beautiful, growing boy opening up to the world as I return to it.

Wednesday night, my head spinning with thoughts on racism, prejudice, and privilege, on Bay Area women of color in the fetish lifestyle (the openness, the potential for emotional healing, the tricky power differentials, the sheer variety of identity and preference) on bilingual elementary school education and the perils of standardized testing, I got home and could not stop talking about my day. Wednesdays are long for me. I leave the house at 7:30 and get home about 13 hours later after a commute that includes being packed into the humid heat of a San Francisco city bus with the young men saying hella this, hella that, their dragon boat paddles tucked into backpacks, and elderly Buddhist nuns electing to stand when offered a seat, and little girls who are separated from their mothers but keep calm even when the crowd between mother and daughter is five deep. Last Wednesday night, the sunset over Oakland was incredible, this expanse of pink-tinged clouds spread above the cargo cranes of the harbor like a beautiful explosion, the pastel remains of an
airborne toxic event. Like the sunset, my day was intense. I had to unpack it when I got home.

Life is rich and complicated. I crack myself open on a daily basis, feeling things that I’ve kept hidden for a long time. Even after the dreadful awkwardness of parental chitchat under the fluorescent lights of the boy's elementary school classroom at night, a time and place when I am often at my worst (classrooms seem to do it for me – it’s still hard for me to feel comfortable in my own classes), I was able to see the whole situation, the social set-up, as a way to stretch myself, to allow myself to be uncomfortable knowing that some day I would be comfortable again, or close enough.

Within this life, this complicated life, I have so much now, so much more than I did 20 years ago. Part of it is luck in being partnered with someone who totally supports me, part of it is the result of hard, emotional work. I am so very grateful for this life, for my husband and son, who are a huge part of the reason that I have a chance to try things over, to bring the dormant and suppressed back to the surface, joy, sadness, fear and all.


Image by chrissam42 taken in 2006 from BART in West Oakland, just about the spot from which I was watching the sky on Wednesday night. The sunset I saw was similar but more spectacular.

I'm going to try updating the blog about once a week during the semester. My apologies for not answering emails or visiting blogs. Even writing this feels like an unauthorized use of time, but so necessary.

Changing spaces

bar toilet image by Dot and Charles Steck http://dcspacegallery.com/content/dc_032_large.html
You made the teetering walk from the bar, two dark claustrophobic rooms, one with a stage and everything was 80s black and 80s cynical and blurry anyway because you were usually drunk by the time you got there. You made the swaying, syncopated stroll up a wide set of stairs, once grand, maybe, though the place was a firetrap, it probably always was, even back in the Civil War days when it was new brick. The stairs were covered with grey distressed indoor/outdoor carpet marked with cigarette burns and unidentifiable stains, and you always wondered why they made people go upstairs to the bathroom when everyone was drunk and slippery on their feet anyway. But there was nowhere to put a bathroom down there and it was a relief, too, to get away from the noise, the cacophony of punk or rockabilly.

One stall, of course, with a toilet that was constantly clogged, that you hovered over while letting loose, closing your eyes in relief. If you were lucky, your friend came up with you and could guard the door, which never latched properly, or perhaps you would make friends with someone behind you in line who would be your sentry or maybe you were so drunk that it didn’t matter anymore. You were so drunk you might sit on that stained toilet seat.

Yes, (dc) space was the place. You ran into Peter there once, from Chestertown to Silver Spring to Washington, DC, a bike messenger in the city (now a cross country ski pro in a faraway place). You met the bassist from the Thangs there, leaned on him after their set and danced to the twanging sounds of the band that played after them. That relationship is truly blurry. You don't remember how it ended, you were drinking so much and everything was so dark and maybe you were depressed even then, or dealing with delayed grief and self-hatred. Maybe that was just how it had to be with you, isolated, wanting, covering everything over with alcohol and ill-advised sex.

One of salient questions in that first visit with the new therapist two weeks ago:  has this pattern of isolation been in place for a long time? You thought, remembered cold empty rooms and the strangely barren college years (yes, you had friends, close ones, but they didn't know everything; you didn't reach out), the oddness of graduate school, the times in the early years when you almost broke down from grief and loneliness, from the feeling of having no footing, nothing within you or without to hold onto. Even in the busiest years in DC, you so stable and professional, with the job and the occasional dinners out with friends:  yes. This has been you since fifteen, keeping close, holding yourself safe.

Yes. dc space, where your roommates left you one night, you drunk and belligerent and insisting you were fine. On the prowl, in search of something, someone. The boys, the men, the lying down and standing up, the going along. The desperate searching. The turning away from that life, an act of will and of choice, to something flattened and grey but safe. The way you've kept it grey, as if that were the only option.

You are learning that it doesn't have to be that way. You are not destined for this aloneness. You have a shining core.You are true and real, damaged as we all are, but not cruel. You deserve to be in the world.

So you write about it to understand it, you capture the past and see the rambling narrative, to let it go, let it loose. Of course these feelings are not all of you. But you will not deny them, for denial gives them strength. You write and you feel it and give yourself footing before you turn to something else.


Image of a toilet at dc space by Dot and Charles Steck.

From a photo prompt that has nothing to do with this. For some reason, the stairs and bathroom of dc space came to mind last night, that long-gone world. Today dc space is a Starbucks, all light-filled and caffeinated.

The bitter scent of coming winter

Back when I was dating my opposite, the racist homophobic conservative hunter J., I was a regular reader of Gourmet magazine. I would prepare special meals for J., smoked salmon ravioli, pissalidière crisscrossed with anchovies and dotted with bitter black olives, pears braced with crystalized ginger and honey and baked to a custardy finish. J. and I had chemistry, an easily bruised love, so we each tolerated the other's differences, limped along even though he lived in another town and had very real reasons to keep me at arm's length.

I remember prep
aring a meal for him in the decay of autumn, after the leaves had dropped from the trees and lay rotting in the gutter and the breeze was turning cold and harsh. I was just 21 years old and could focus on the kitchen, had the time to think about cooking, and it was all still new, too, love and cookery. There was a recipe in Gourmet for roasted fall vegetables. I skinned and hacked a heavy butternut squash, added knobby shallots, garlic, and chunks of red potato, then tossed the vegetables with olive oil and roasted them in the oven. Near the end of cooking, I added slivered sage leaves, the bitter scent of coming winter.

Sage takes well to butter and olive oil, get crisp and intense, medicinal over gnocchi, tucked among thick slices of potato. My husband and I grow sage in our front yard. The plant sits between the flat-leafed parsley and the lemon verbena, its silver green leaves upright, purple flowers still drawing honeybees. I’ll have to trim it soon, deadhead the flowers and clean off the spider webs in preparation for the feasts and sadness of fall.

Here is the original recipe, from
Epicurious. Add 2 tablespoons slivered sage in the last ten minutes of cooking to recreate my more winter-scented dish.

Roasted Autumn Vegetables

1 1/2 pounds small red potatoes
1 pound shallots (about 24), peeled and trimmed
5 tablespoons olive oil
1 bay leaf
1/4 teaspoon dried thyme, crumbled
4 garlic cloves, crushed
2 pounds butternut squash, peeled and cut into 3/4-inch pieces (about 4 cups)
fresh thyme sprigs for garnish, if desired

In a bowl, toss together the potatoes, quartered, the shallots, 4 tablespoons of
the oil, the bay leaf, the dried thyme, the garlic, and salt and pepper to taste. Spread the vegetables in an oiled large roasting pan and roast them in the middle of a preheated 375°F. oven, shaking the pan every 5 to 10 minutes, for 25 minutes. In a bowl toss the squash with the remaining 1 tablespoon oil and salt and pepper to taste and add it to the pan. Roast the vegetables, shaking the pan occasionally, for 10 to 20 minutes more, or until they are tender. Discard the bay leaf and garnish the vegetables with the thyme sprigs.

October 1990

Image: Attractive sage bush, much nicer than ours, from eHow.


Beware of Estonians bearing basil *recipe not included*

Peter was only after the blender.

I was working in the college bookstore, propped up on a stool behind the register, when he came in to buy something small, a pack of gum, a used book, a cassette tape, I don’t remember. As I passed his change over the counter, brushed my fingertips across this stranger's calloused palm, Peter said “I know you from the newspaper. You told it like it was.”

A month earlier I was one of five or six people chosen to answer a question for
The Elm: what did we think about the proposed student fee increase? Below my photograph was the statement “I know nothing about it. I have no opinion.” Ignorance and flat honesty prevailed. It was my statement, my stand on nothing in particular that got me the boy.

Or maybe it really
was the blender. After asking my name and relationship status, Peter went straight to appliance ownership: if I had the blender, he had the basil. He knew where to score pine nuts and a fine wedge of pecorino romano. Peter wanted to come back to my place, make a little pesto.

The blender sat on the stained linoleum kitchen counter in the small college apartment I shared with my roommate Martha, right beside the coffee percolator that she filled with Folgers each morning. Martha bought it with plans for soup-making, warm vichyssoise in winter, refreshing gazpacho during the humid summer months, but in reality we used it make frozen drinks. After the Piña Colada incident the appliance went fallow, gathered cooking grease and flour dust.

Peter's basil source was a garden across the Chester River, a plot of rich soil courtesy of his employer, Anthony's Landscaping. We rode there one sticky June night, pedaled his tandem through a landscape defined by moonlight and shadow, moved our legs in time to the percussion of crickets. The basil had formed a moat around a pair of tumbledown beefsteak tomatoes. Rabbits and groundhogs had ravished the rest. As I smoothed my fingers over the soft leaves, pale in the semidarkness, the basil sighed, let out a breath of spice and earth and warm sun, a promise of pasta sauce and anise-tinged kisses.

When you are 18, most of the world is still a mystery, or it should be. I already had a boyfriend, and Peter knew it, but something about his earnestness – his habit of tossing rocks at my window for midnight bike rides, the fact that he was as aimless at 24 as I felt at 18 – made him irresistible. He was an English major whose literary mind had been muddled by deconstructionism, an Estonian-American who later taught me the best places to go in Washington, DC for Ethiopian food and the blues. Peter liked to pass things on. It was insider information: the slightly off-kilter notes of Thelonius Monk; the tuneless pounding and punk bands of d.c. space; the Biograph movie theater; linguini with pesto sauce.

His pesto obsession was endearing. And it
was an obsession. In circa 1988 Chestertown, Maryland, pine nuts were an exotic foodstuff. Without a car, Peter had to finagle his way 75 miles and back to DC to procure one expensive cupful. He arrived at our place on the appointed night, clutching two bouquets of basil, a greasy paper bag half-filled with pine nuts, and a crumbling hunk of cheese. Martha and I had already peeled the garlic, purchased a good-enough olive oil. We had wiped down the blender. In the kitchen, I started grating cheese while Martha opened beers. Peter began tossing pine nuts and knobs of garlic into the machine.

The blender turned out to be an inferior pesto-making tool, or perhaps it was all in the technique. Crammed in the bottom, the garlic and pine nuts slowly turned to paste, while the basil calmly refused to be pulled into the fray. Peter finally grabbed a wooden spoon. The high-pitched whine of the blender was interrupted by a thunk as the bottom of the spoon splintered against metal blades. Too late to go back now. He picked out the shards.

Twenty minutes later, Peter offered a fingerful of the final product. Eyebrows raised in anticipation, I kept a cheerful expression, gazed past the green film coating his glasses to look directly into his eyes. The pesto tasted of garlic and more garlic interrupted by a heady nip of basil and the punch of sharp cheese. Raw pine nuts, resinous and rich, just barely kept the other ingredients in tune. As olive oil ran down my chin, I carefully deflected a splinter with my tongue, a little kick from Peter's secret ingredient.

(First image: Me, Chestertown, MD, Summer 1988, taken by "Martha." Companion picture of Martha not included. Second image: Basil plants, from Vultus Christi.)


Heathen can wait

If I couldn't prove it, why should I believe?

There was no other conclusion. I couldn't believe in God. This wasn’t a question of whether or not he existed, but was a question of my own belief. No proof was sufficient and I had no faith, no religious background, no desire to hide behind the wimpy safety of Pascal's wager.

Shortly after I reached this conclusion, a product of a paper I wrote on God’s existence in a Philosophy 101 class, I dropped out of college. It was the middle of the second semester, sophomore year and for a while I kept it quiet, kept on accepting my father and step-mother’s checks, which were enough to cover my half of the rent. My roommate, in shaky recovery from an eating disorder, was working as a waitress. As the money dried up, she got me a job waiting tables.

It fell apart. We drank and drank, put ourselves in dangerous situations. I was moving to DC, she didn’t want to come. She slept with my longtime boyfriend, I abandoned her for an Eastern Shore boy who lived with his brother in a place called the Sugar Shack. That fall, my mother drove me and the cat to a small rowhouse in NE DC where I was renting a room. I was starting a new life as a sophomore at Catholic University.

This was the atheist’s choice? Catholic University? I was thinking of majoring in education and Catholic had a good program. The school was located in Washington, a city I wanted to live in. My decision was sealed during the interview, when my interlocuter -- Miss DC 1988! -- told me I was in. But on that first day of school, I jettisoned education for philosophy. It was the most interesting thing going.

Amy, my housemate, was 30 years old to my 20, a Peace Corps survivor. Amy counted her potatoes and onions, and even recorded the shape her peanut butter was in -- the knife slashes, the peaks and valleys and indentations -- before she put the lid on the jar. I found her tallies of produce, her vivid peanut butter descriptions, recorded in tiny script on a piece of paper hidden in the pantry. When I moved in, she had envisioned late night bull sessions with her new gal pal. What she got was an unhappy, underage semi-alcoholic, quiet and removed. She coped by counting her vegetables, a safeguard against (non-existent) theft.

I found salvation on the second day of classes, while taking notes for the History of Ancient Philosophy. N., a Basselin scholar, started up a conversation with me and his fellow Basselins joined in. They were men my age, in the seminary and on the road to priesthood, in addition to being philosophy majors on steroids. If it weren’t for N., who pulled me in, supported me, got me a job when I was desperate, and on occasion gave me food "donated" from the seminary kitchen, I’m not sure I would have survived. He was -- and is -- a good friend.

N. is happily married now, to a kind-hearted, amazing woman. They have five kids. He and his wife have accepting of me, of my quiet atheism. They approach me without judgement.

But am I still an atheist?

I don’t have faith, but I am not as slavishly devoted to proofs. For those who believe, God is real. As for me, I’ll have to be content with not knowing.
Real Time Web Analytics