the giving of thanks…ish.

October 11, 2011 § Leave a comment

Holidays are like chaos-balls soaked in cliche.

Thanksgiving isn’t as bad as Christmas, obviously, but it’s still laced with those traditions that make us weep and cringe and guffaw, all at the same time. The problem is the pressure to be joyful. But mostly we just feel fearful…

Right? Am I alone in this? I’m terrified by the happiest days of the year – just because they’re so damn happy.

What if I’m not happy enough? Or the right kind of happy? What if people mistake my happiness for something else? What if I don’t even understand what it means to be happy? On top of everything else, what if I overbake the cheesecake or yell at my family or spill the gravy or hit a porcupine on the way back to Moose Jaw?

Holidays are about the turkey – and I feel right sorry for that poor bastard.

But, all that said, I can honestly say that Thanksgiving 2011 was a pretty great time. I realized (just like you’re supposed to!) that I have a lot to be thankful for. And, as usual, I realized what I don’t have. Being at home, around people who have known me since birth, people who have prayed for me since birth, who have had expectations for me since birth – well, it makes me aware of what I’m not.

To my great surprise, this Thanksgiving I was actually thankful for the “not”s – those big, looming absences. I may be broke, single, and living in a small town…but I am thankful that I am not in the wrong career or the wrong relationship or the wrong place. I’m actually thankful to have what looks like less. ‘Cause it means I’m ready for more.

Next Thanksgiving…who knows? By then I might have got so into the spirit of the thing I’m buying pilgrim pinatas. (Should I patent that? I’m totally patenting that.)

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A brand new semester… and “back” to the books?

September 29, 2011 § Leave a comment

Some people say that when they’re in school they don’t have time to read “for fun.” But people will always make room in their lives for pleasurable activity so it seems to me that these people don’t honestly consider fun-reading all that fun. A novel may be more fun to read than, say, a deconstructive analysis of The Bell Jar, but is it fun enough? It’s just another option, really.

I, however,  am a desperate reader. No matter how demanding my studies, I am always in the middle of a novel and I retreat to it the way an athlete will come off the field for rest and refreshment. That said, not all novels are equal. The point is not that one reads fiction but that one reads good fiction. And the corollary is that one won’t always enjoy it. Which somehow makes the experience that much richer. Even if they do seem like “breaks” from study, the novels I read don’t allow me to let down my guard. I am stretching my muscles, running on the spot, staying alert and focused. Because I can’t not learn from what I read; a story is never just a story. It’s an experience. It is, to use an unfortunate term, a lesson – not in morality or ethics, but in living and feeling.

I just finished The Museum of Innocence, by Orhan Pamuk – a rather colossal enterprise for both writer and reader – and I can honestly say, I didn’t like it. Which isn’t what you’re supposed to say after you finish a 600-page novel by a Nobel Prize winner. But – and this is where my introduction becomes relevant – I’m glad I read it. To use a cliche, “it really got me thinking.”

It is a novel about a man obsessed with a woman, or, as some might say, “in love.” He collects mementos of her throughout her life and after she dies, and eventually goes on to erect a museum – a sort of shrine to her memory and to the memory of their “love.”

The reason I am so hesitant to use the L-word is because it is the term of choice for our narrator: he loves her. She loves him. Their love is doomed but it can be  made eternal, it can last beyond their lives. Love birthed the Museum of Innocence – the only problem being, in my opinion, that there’s nothing innocent about this “love” at all.

People define love in all kinds of ways. In theory, it should be the opposite of selfishness; in practice, it is incredibly selfish – after all, it feels good and we run after what feels good. What so disturbed me about this story was the fact that the narrator, a man, could spend the entire novel proclaiming his love for this woman, and we, his readers, never get to know her. We see her, we hear about her, but she is almost absent; his story, even his museum, claims to be dedicated to his love but it is all about him. I, putting myself in the shoes of the invisible woman, understand her final act of recklessness. Wouldn’t you be crying to be seen, rather than seen through? Yet in the end, she is still contained, imprisoned in a museum, one-dimensional in the objects that supposedly represent her – that, and not her early death, is the real tragedy.

Is this what Pamuk intended the reader to see? Were we supposed to sympathize with the man in his debilitating obsession? After all, he suffered too. Were we supposed to believe that she loved him? Were we supposed to believe in the innocence of the museum and its creator? Was there something beautiful here that I’m simply missing?

This story made me sad – really sad. Yet I can say I’m glad I read it; why? Because it reminded me of just how terrible people are at loving? Well…. yes, I guess. The facts about human nature aren’t cheering, exactly, but they are important. I didn’t learn anything new from the novel (which is not a requirement of good fiction, by the way) but I was reminded that there is nothing new under the sun.

Ever read Ecclesiastes? It’s depressing because it’s true. Living in darkness, in depression, isn’t a viable way to live (just ask the author of The Bell Jar) but living with a knowledge of darkness, particularly the darkness within, is probably wise.

So I’m going to keep reading things that make me uncomfortable. But most importantly, I’m just going to keep reading.

 

 

put my head in a blender

August 25, 2011 § 2 Comments

It’s called “Eat Books Read Food” for a reason. I’m enthusiastic to the point of derangement.

These days I’m devouring Donne and scouring recipes – usually simultaneously. My attention span lasts as long as my appetite’s appeasement; so, not very. I’m always on the lookout for the next literary inspiration, the next food revelation. Which means I’m, at any given moment, doing about thirteen things at once. Sitting down has become a challenge.

The next market day quickly approaches (it’s ten p.m. on Tuesday and I’ve already started baking for Saturday), as does the commencement of the fall semester; besides embarking on a little entrepreneurial adventure, I’ll also be attending seminary full-time to attain my second master’s degree. My mother’s colleague asked me today: “So, are you finished yet?” to which I replied “Finished what? Baking cakes?” He said, “No, school!” I laughed. “I’m just starting.”

I worry that this perpetual motion, this restless pacing between projects and places, will eventually make me feel like I’ve missed my own life. But then I remember how I feel when I am sedentary, when I make those infrequent, but serious, efforts to “settle down,” and there’s only one word for it: bereft. When I’m not generating my own excitement for my own life, I feel bereft. I might be exhausted, overtaxed, overstimulated, over-everything, but I’m also pretty damn stoked about it. I guess, at this point in my life, what I want more than happiness is just plain aliveness. For the time being, it feels like I’ve got it.

Do I owe it to the cakes? To the critical analysis papers I’m desperate to complete before class meets on September 12? Rather than restrain me, my sky-high goals seem to give me the freedom to get as “gung-ho,” as recklessly obsessive as I dare. This morning, while I painfully scraped the corners of my brain for the words to describe just what it is I see in Holy Sonnet 19, I could swear I felt glee in the midst of my exasperation. And tonight, while I mixed and rolled and poured and stirred, I found myself wondering, bewilderingly, why the hell I couldn’t just watch t.v. during the evening like normal people – and I took a bizarre satisfaction in observing my own behavior.

I guess I’m kind of content in my own manic way. Just eating books and reading food till I can’t tell which is which. That’s the way (it would seem) I like it.

saskatchewan

August 15, 2011 § Leave a comment

If the opposite of love is apathy, I guess I love this place -’cause I hate it just as much.

In winter, summer is like an idea, a vague and foreign concept. Just when I am ready to crawl beneath the snow and its quiet, ruthless arrogance, I find a reprieve – like the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Saskatchewan takes only enough pity on its tribes to keep us hoping for the fulfillment of promises made lifetimes ago.

In summer, I don’t want to sleep. I am afraid to go outside for fear I’ll be too happy, I am afraid to go inside for fear I’ll miss it – I am afraid I won’t get enough, won’t enjoy my fill, before winter is insinuating itself once again. The threat hangs, like the ghost of a cloud, over these relentless, sun-filled summer days; and when the languid heat borders on the ominous and when the dryness starts to creep down our throats, we remember that we do not live in Saskatchewan, it lives in us. The soil awaits our arrival, just as it awaits the wheat seed, the badger, the rain.

I am not melancholy. Not in the least. I am merely stunned – coming from Cambridge to Swift Current was like braking so hard your seatbelt snaps and your head whips back and your muscles ache for days, tense and wary.

But now – now I’m starting to grin again. And when I stand on a gravel road with nothing but seas of wheat and acres of sky behind and before me, I think, “I was driving too fast anyway.”

On Sunday I went mini-golfing at the Dairy King, the same mini-golf course that’s been there, on the corner by the overpass, for my whole life. The big gray plastic squirrel blocking hole 15 has lost most of its paint and the bowling pins that used to move up and down, playfully obstructing hole 12, are now lying on their sides, like old dogs in the heat – there are only two anyway and the mechanism that made them dance has long since retired. And besides the sand traps there are big scuffs in the carpeting, gaps in the old wooden structures where balls get stuck, and an overall unevenness to the course that makes a straight putt next to impossible.

I would recommend the old Augusta Wind mini-golf to everyone. Not least for the ice cream that must – tradition dictates; it must – follow. A dish of soft serve ice cream tastes just as good, maybe better, than it did fifteen years ago. And the gummi bears on top are free.

My girl friend and I wandered downtown post-sundaes, sweltering in the late afternoon heat radiating from the ashphalt. The traffic lights signalled for no one, perfunctorily going through the motions for cars that never arrived. We passed store after store full of sleeping merchandise, doors that wore “please call again” signs as if gently chiding us: today is a day of rest.

The first place we tried to find a drink was closed. The schedule taped to the window had two blank spaces next to Sunday: “open from closed to ferme.” The second place didn’t even have a sign; it was just locked.

I looked up Main Street, sloping back towards the highway; it was so still I thought I could see the wind. I waited for a tumbleweed.

On our third try, we found a neon OPEN sign and cold beers on tap. Weathered-looking men in dirty caps and dusty wranglers glanced our way – and held those glances. Self-conscious and defiant, we perched at the bar and ordered Rickard’s; I knew from experience that the only wine they served came in a box, and that it was best not to ask anyway.

Later I drove home, to my parents’ house south of town, and from the back patio, watched evening happen to the great big spaces. The cat circled my legs, keeping an eye on the dog who glared at her from the living room window. The air cooled. The crickets got louder. The barely perceptible hum of highway traffic drifted over like smoke.

I fell asleep with my window open, a dog-eared copy of W.O. Mitchell on the pillow beside me, where it landed when my eyes finally closed.

Camp. Two portraits.

August 7, 2011 § Leave a comment

Camping Trip No. 1 (July 30th) with unnamed persons

It is morning. I squint at the mountains, the lake in glaring, reflective tranquility. I turn my forehead from the sun, as it burns my hair to gold; I feel like a trespasser. A chipmunk chirps loudly beside me, his voice much too big for his half-pint body. I take the hint and pay my dues: he runs off happily with the toll, my chocolate biscuit.

Then I pick up where I left off: murmuring Psalm 89 to myself.

“Mercy and truth go before your face.”

Mercy! Truth! What quaintly attractive ideas. Like fairytale lessons, like the-morals-of-the-stories.

I wonder if “mercy” is the closest we can come to a definition of love: the choice not to exercise hate, repugnance, disgust, the choice not to give what is deserved.

Because people are grotesque.

Perhaps it’s only when a person has come face-to-face with his or her own grotesqueness – when he has really seen what he is and he knows he won’t recover from the sight – that that person can get close to an understanding of mercy. Or truth for that matter.

This morning I’m preoccupied by last night’s fireside conversations. They don’t vary much in tone or quality, because, unfailingly, the people in this group agree. Sharing the same convenient worldview, they quickly, vehemently concur upon whatever issue is up for so-called “discussion.” Probably their views will never be seriously challenged (I have tried) because they won’t leave the safety of these circles. They won’t have to.

(But, to be fair, we all have our circles; “the group” is an evolutionary necessity, isn’t it? Which might be to the detriment of the individual…but what’s an individual? Just a member, a number, a part but not ever a whole? This, more than almost anything else, terrifies me.)

So they can continue to make jokes about homosexuality, and derogatory remarks about Native Americans. They can blame the Muslims, judge the Catholics, laugh at the feminists and liberals. They can boisterously defame the French.

These things are acceptable around our evening campfire. And before you cast judgment – before I cast judgment – I suggest you look at your own late-night campfire conversations…

Who do we love to hate? How about right-wing Christian conservatives? How about “rednecks”? How about elitists, socialists, capitalists, fundamentalists, the uneducated, the lazy, the messy, the beautiful, the boring?

We all have our mercy holes – those black cracks in our souls that we delight to fill with type after type, persons of the “wrong kind.” If we stuff enough corpses down there, the hole will eclipse the mercy.

I don’t consider myself “better” than the people I walked away from last night on the pretext that I was tired. But I know that I know a shame they seem unacquainted with. I am aware, acutely, of my grotesqueness. But I don’t wear my guilt like a badge – how could I when I’m still reeling from its blows? I still feel I am every sin that I’ve committed, so I can’t really “look down” because I am down.

Yet by saying I’m here, and they’re there, am I not taking a stab at them too?

Mercy seems impossible if you’re not God; even my attempt at forgiveness requires its own forgiving. Mercy seems to require perfection, it seems to require an ultimate. Otherwise, why practice mercy at all if each of us needs it? Can’t we just keep that love for ourselves? Isn’t that what we do to survive, anyway?

Giving mercy is like committing emotional suicide. It’s like blowing to bits every rampart of the fortified guard you have so carefully constructed around your tender sense of self. It leaves you standing not only naked, but nothing. And that, I guess, is truth.

And that, I guess, is love.

Camping Trip No. 2 (Aug. 2) with my dog

We have burnt wieners for supper. Dinner conversation is stimulating: I talk, he barks. Sometimes he talks, I bark. I drink wine from a thermos and I don’t share and he doesn’t mind. He doesn’t judge me for drinking, I don’t judge him for having an underbite.

We say goodnight and/or woof in the tent, then we go to sleep.

We are happy campers.

interesting-ness.

July 7, 2011 § Leave a comment

It’s been a while since I posted. It’s not that I don’t have anything to say, it’s that I’m afraid I might not say what I mean to say or, alternatively, that I might say exactly what I mean – but that someone else will take it to mean something else entirely. Nonetheless, that’s the beauty – the mystery, the horror – of writing, isn’t it? That interaction between all three components – author, text, reader? Giving someone, anyone, your words is like handing them an etch-a-sketch of your self. I must want to hand over the reigns, to some extent, or I wouldn’t have created a blog…

I read more than I write, more than I think. I often read in order to avoid writing. I’m either looking for inspiration or proof of my suspicion that all I might want to say has already been said – and said better than I could have said it. That’s not an excuse not to write (we already know there’s nothing new under the sun; that was established some thousands of years ago) but such is my “sensitive” (read: delicately but supremely narcissistic) nature that I take offense to others’ superior talents in arenas which I would very much like to succeed – and in which I could, if only I took a moment to stop nursing my brow-beaten ego and write.

An aside: I recently finished A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Eggers annoyed me because he spoke in much the same self-aware, self-indulgent, painfully ironic way I suspect I might write if I were to write an autobiography. And now I’m doing it.

Before Eggers, I read The Secret History, by Donna Tartt (and before that I read The Little Friend by Donna Tartt… very rarely do I voluntarily read two works by the same author in a row, but she’s just that good). Near the end of the novel, the narrator remarks on “my own fatal tendency to try to make interesting people good” – and I thought, damn it Tartt, you’ve nailed it.

Goodness versus interesting-ness. This, concisely, is my dilemma, my debacle, my own personal devil. I want to know what is of greater value: virtue or intelligence? But, more importantly, why – Why?! I wail – must these exist in opposition to one another? For undoubtedly they do. In our society, in our age, they do. Rectitude is an old-fashioned term, an old-fashioned concept. Ethical living is something different entirely and far more acceptable, since it has nothing to do with faith. A few centuries ago religious persons were the most educated of a society; today religious persons are typically seen as the most unenlightened.

So where does that leave me? I know many people who will have very straightforward answers to these questions but I beg you, you on either side of the fence, to ponder further. To my fellow Christians, think  about the black-and-white grids of your own (yes, slightly programmed) understanding, and question it. Don’t discard it, but question it. And to my fellow academics, consider your own intolerance; is your dismissal of all things unscientific just another kind of fundamentalism?

I prize my mind and I prize my faith. I believe God is the author of both. But I live amongst others – no woman is an island, sometimes unfortunately –  and am constantly tossed upon their tides of opinion. To some I am interesting, to some I am good, to some I am neither. But what do I want to be? What self do I want to fall asleep with at the end of the day, the end of my life?

And despite not having answers, I feel a little better having voiced my questions. Sometimes it’s okay, I think, to just leave it at that. Yes?

The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach (or so they say)

June 6, 2011 § 1 Comment

When people think of Canada they think of moose and mountains and lumberjacks and wilderness. When people think of Saskatchewan…. actually, they don’t. It’s not a famous place or a popular place or even a particularly exciting place. But it’s where I’m from and it’s where I’ve just been and it’s where I, incidentally, had one of the best “holidays” of my life. At home.

In a way, I have my family to thank for such a successful visit. I was introduced to my twin baby nieces and that was glorious because they are adorable and squishy and there’s two of them! But, of course, happy babies aren’t hard to get along with. I’m talking about the rest of the family and how, for once, I didn’t feel like I had descended from outer space and landed among people who stared at me ’cause I was green and lumpy and full of weird ideas.

I exaggerate. But I do feel like a bit of an oddball usually, with my feminist, liberal, Ghandian principles, at dinner tables populated by conservative, capitalist, old-school Christians. And now that I’ve settled in England I’ve become an especially unusual specimen. But this time, this visit home, was different than any other. And I don’t give my family full credit for this. Who, or what, I have to thank is none other than Food itself (and her blessed source…but I’ll get to that).

In short, feeding people makes them like you, kind of like buying their love. But you might also say that offering food you’ve made, food that you’ve handled – food you’ve felt and formed and brought into being – is like offering a piece of yourself. Yes, that’s exactly what it is: an offering.

I cooked up a storm, so to speak, while I was at home and maybe it was because I was hoping to impress my family who has so far remained unimpressed by my academic accolades, but I think (I hope) the reason is nobler than that. Perhaps I knew I had stumbled upon a bridge that allowed me to reach the people I loved in a way I hadn’t before, a bridge that allowed them, too, to cross into my world, to see me and my passion for what we are: a bundle of nervous excitement, desperately eager to please.

I spent whole days in the farmhouse kitchen – and I don’t recall a time I was happier. Using my mother’s old, warped Tupperware bowls to beat dough after dough, being greeted every morning by the cat’s orange face shoved against the window screen (her “prizes” of mutilated mice strewn across the deck behind her), tripping over the dog as I tried hopelessly to find a whisk in the collect-all drawer of cookie cutters and broken spoons, running to Safeway last-minute only to realize that no one there had ever heard of Gruyere, trying to convert grams into cups and celsius into farenheit and wondering why the lemon bars I put in at “180” weren’t setting… it was pure, unadulterated happiness to sit down at the end of a long day, covered in flour and chocolate smears, with egg yolk in my hair, and watch my family eat the food I had made. Finally – oh thank God, finally – I had something to offer them. I had done something right. When my brother muttered, under his breath, “Good supper, George,” my heart couldn’t have soared higher – coming from him, it was the highest praise I could hope to achieve. When he took a second piece of French silk pie, I thought I would faint with pleasure and pride.

I know my parents love me and I know my brother loves me too. I know my grandparents and my aunts and uncles and cousins all love me as one of their own. But I’ve been insecure and I’ve been afraid and I’ve been an outcast of my own making. No one could have asked me to do what I’ve done, certainly no one could have asked me to “change.” Instead, I think I was found. “All good gifts come from God above” and I do believe that I happened upon a gift He’d left waiting. For me to find, and for me to give.

I didn’t know salvation could be found in meatballs, and I certainly didn’t know God was in the habit of blessing pastry. I don’t know if it’s normal to “give thanks” at the end of a meal, rather than before, but I do know that at the conclusion of this feast I am heading back to England blissfully full of something far richer than my mascarpone citrus poppyseed cake.

“Thank you Jesus for our food,” my brother and I used to pray when we were little, with hands folded over our plates of Kraft dinner and our bowls of Campbell’s tomato soup, “And bless it to our body’s use.”

And our soul’s, too … oh dear God, bless this food to our soul’s use. Amen. A thousand times, amen.