writing to survive
. . . only the retelling counts

The state of things

Soufflé was on the menu last night. All I had on hand was heavy cream, so I substituted it for the milk, which made the resulting béchamel thick and unctuous after only few minutes’ simmer. I whisked in egg yolks, Dijon mustard, and grated parmesan cheese, then folded in crumbled goat cheese, followed by whipped egg whites. The pale yellow mixture clung to the spoon as I distributed it into miniature filo dough shells. After ten minutes in a 400 ˚F oven, the soufflés came out puffed and brown. We ate them with steamed artichokes. Finger food for dinner: delicious.

In the haute cuisine ‘70s, Julia Child’s
Mastering The Art of French Cooking (vol. 1) on her shelf, my mother sometimes made towering soufflés for dinner. Since a loud noise could deflate a soufflé in seconds, I was told to refrain from stomping around while they cooked, and especially not to open the oven. The kitchen became as quiet as a winter snowfall. Still, I made my unhappiness with the main dish obvious. I disliked the spinach variety in particular, which to me looked and tasted like a spongy yellow blob streaked with green. My mother’s avant-garde-for-Delaware cooking became part of the family lore, along with her health food cookies, homemade yogurt, and hot carob, and how I rebelled against it all.

I have my mother’s copy of Child’s classic, which is well-used and falls open in several places, mainly to dishes I don’t remember. Flipping through, however, I came to “ground beef-hamburgers,” a staple of childhood. It brought me back to a summer Saturdays, my mother telling me we will be eating “hamboygers” for dinner. I was happy because we were eating together. Nobody else would be at the table. There would be no tension, no erasure of my presence. There is joy in that memory and there is pain, a bittersweet, ambiguous mix.

Last night, we all ate the soufflés with gusto, the boy enjoying it as much as the rest of us. We talked and laughed. We were a family. But I know that not all the boy’s family memories will be unambiguously happy, no matter how much I would like them to be. Life has a lumpy imperfection. It is off-kilter, asymmetrical, a melange of good and bad. That is the state of things. Hopefully, the sweet outweighs the bitter in the end.

Top image: Main ingredients (minus the béchamel).
Bottom image: The book in question, with my shadowy presence above it.

I am not a bagel

I have been sitting on the couch in a crooked patch of flickering sunlight, catching up on blogs and mindlessly surfing the interwebz. It gets more and more easy to toss the intellectual brain aside and wallow in trivia, to take quizzes that tell me what kind of bagel I am (pumpernickel?!?), or which Harry Potter character I would be. (Luna Lovegood? That makes a hell of a lot more sense than pumpernickel.) I have the sickly taste of dissolved Lemonheads in my mouth (first sweet, then sour, then cloying), and I really should get a glass of fizzy water or brush my teeth. But here I sit, distracted and wanting.

After being crazy busy for months, having a few days off feels . . . unsettling. I still have plenty to do – write a transcript and case/process notes, clean, weed, and plan for my girls’ groups, among other things. Theoretically, I have the time to complete a few tasks. Tuesday stretches out before me, with no boy in the mix until dinnertime. However, the more time I have, the less efficient I often become. And these long days can be isolating. By 2:30, I will be clawing my lonely way out of the weeds.

Last night, in a discussion about lightening my course load for family reasons, a classmate seemed visibly surprised when I said the boy was eight. My take on her reaction (which could be wrong) was that he was a little old for me to be using him as a rationale for tapping on the brakes. But that could have been my own bias at work. The guilt-prone, self-deprecating part of me thinks I am a lady of leisure, nicely buffered from real world issues. While the boy is in school, in camp, at his after-school program, I dabble in coursework and consider what color to paint the living room.

OK. I am no lady of leisure. There is always work to be done, even when I am not doing it. Unlike this week, this summer will be filled with useful household projects. Still, I’ll admit it – there are things about everyday working life that I do not miss and feel relieved to have taken a pass on for almost a decade. Though I have responsibilities and required tasks for both school and my placement, much of my time is mine to structure as I choose. These days, worn down by coursework, clients, and commuting, I choose to just be during quiet, unscheduled moments. I write. I feel my breath rising and falling, rhythmic, soothing, and almost eternal. And maybe I take an internet quiz or two.

But too much quiet can be a problem. Silence ricochets through a long, lonely day. It reverberates. The key to managing a long solitudinous stretch is to structure my time around tasks, little explosions of activity, to fill these empty rooms with movement and thought. It is up to me to create the meaning.

Creating meaning does not include killing time with quizzes on which bagel I might be, should I be a bagel. Because I’m not a bagel. Or a
dead philosopher. The color of my aura (green?) will not be sussed out by an online quiz, and it doesn’t matter which city I should live in because I am firmly planted here (sorry, Portland, Oregon). I must resist the siren calls of Facebook, the BuzzFeed distractions and intriguing links from New York magazine and the Huntington Post.

Wish me luck. No, not luck. Wish me willpower. I’ll need it.

Image from
CopyKat Recipes

The bunny man cometh

The house is still filled with the sweet smoky scent of last night’s dinner, the deeply satisfying aroma of salmon marinated in soy sauce and maple syrup (with touch of adobo) and pan fried until the flesh was this side of flaky and the exterior caramelized to a deep brown sheen. We accompanied it with fava beans tossed with red onion and mint and thick slices of tangy Semifreddis sourdough baguette, butter on the side. It was good, a fitting meal for Holy Saturday.

Today, after we eat the waffles and jellybeans and deviled eggs, I will make a crab quiche served with salad and roasted carrots with a cumin yogurt sauce, this pescetarian’s answer to Easter ham and lamb. Between the various dishes, the total egg count for this weekend will be a baker’s dozen.

I don’t really get Easter, although we do traditional things with the boy – the hardboiled eggs dyed into paranoid electric visions or pastel mutes, the visit from the creepy man-sized rabbit with his cavity-engendering treats, the hunt for eggs the man-rabbit plants in secret places for the boy to find. My own associations with childhood Easters are rituals that seem musty and antique, though I am sure there are still girls out there proudly wearing new Easter dresses and (maybe) staring down at their shiny, uncreased patent leather shoes, relieved that church is out.

If Easter is about the Resurrection (despite the rabbit and his chocolate doubles and clutches of eggs) and I don’t believe in Christ as Savior, then how can I really get into this secular mess of a holiday, which is stripped of redemptive meaning? Don’t get me wrong – I understand the shared appeal, the cultural aspect of it. I know the boy enjoys Easter, and that in general kids crave these traditions. I am fully on board. And, thanks to working at a Catholic school, I am more tuned in to the holiday this year. But I just don’t feel it.

Perhaps I miss the certainty of childhood, the assumption that things would never change, that every spring brought a new pale, frilly dress and basket of sugary treats. Maybe it was the way I learned the truth about the Easter Bunny at six or seven, the remains from my present to him (a stick stuck in a bucket of sand) found discarded by the shop side of my grandparents’ house, as though the bunny had rejected the gift but lacked the wherewithal to dispose of it properly. Here was another sign that even fantasies weren’t to be trusted.

Really, I think my lack of excitement about Easter has to do with the ghost family that once surrounded me, now lost to time and broken connections. They are truly gone now, in one way or another, my mother the only tenuous thread to a dead past. So it is up to me to carry on the tradition, to keep things together for the small group left.

I finally feel up to the challenge.

Image: Easter at my grandparents’ house, 1974?.

Clear skies expected

When I got off my university shuttle bus yesterday morning, the campus sun-vibrant, I was overcome with an enormous feeling of gratitude. I was grateful for my ability to learn and change. I had a supportive family. I got to travel through San Francisco a few days a week and lived in a city where my values were valued.

So what that I’d started my one-credit Monday evening class that week, which got me home after 8:00 p.m., only ten hours before I left the next morning? Or that I might have acquired two more clients despite the fact that there are only five weeks left at my placement? Or that my careful, somewhat obsessive preparation for my girls’ groups had been overrun by their need to really
talk about bullying and the ways they have been left out, frozen out, or singled out? The class seems doable, the potential clients need someone to listen to them, and I love that these girls feel comfortable sharing, that I am giving them a space to talk about things that are often kept on the down low.

That grateful feeling, lovely and expansive, matched the uncomplicated beauty of the morning. However, days wear on. Clouds sidle in and block the sun. Storms blow through and soak the scenery, and there you are without an umbrella. Some days, no matter how fine the morning, how luscious the afternoon, you find yourself sitting in a bar at five minutes to midnight, fumbling for cash to pay for that fifth cocktail, the sky on a sob-fest just outside the door.

Not that yesterday
exactly turned into one of those days. I admired the morning, did the academic thing, traveled the rails back home, and picked up the boy, whose outdoor after-school program is closed this week. We hung out. I made a nice family dinner. But the persistent demons of self-doubt still came a-knocking. They rattled me from the inside, told me I said and thought stupid things, that I was slow and clueless and should keep my mouth shut. (I had participated in class more than usual yesterday, always a trigger.) The demons took the best parts of me and obscured them with cape and smoke and obfuscating lies, grabbed my strengths and shoved them into heavy black leather satchels, the worn bags scratched and nicked by claw and tooth and time.

Until I had had enough. I upended those satchels and kicked the demons out of the overpacked rooms of my mind.
Ignore them and keep marching forward, I told myself. After all, I was capable and smart. I’d come this far. I could do it.

Today has been harder. I am tired and ineffectual. The second girls’ group of the week turned into a gossip fest that was difficult to manage. My last client was as eager as I to leave, and I was not as attentive as I could have been. Despite the Bay Area’s blue skies, my internal weather has been partly cloudy. But it’s also Holy Thursday, which holds special meaning for me this year. As of 12:30 (or earlier, if you don’t count the Mass), my placement site is on Easter break. Hallelujah! A week without the
6:00 a.m. commutes, the 39L, or the three hours of supervision. A week to breathe, to air out my head. To sleep. To clean. To be. Even if I do still have to go to class.

The weather report is looking up.

Image from here.