Listen: you are not yourself.
on the problems of stress and health [+ a recipe]
“... you are crowds of others, you are as leaky a vessel as was ever made, you have spent vast amounts of your life as someone else, as people who died long ago, as people who never lived, as strangers you never met. The usual I we are given has all the tidy containment of the kind of character the realist novel specializes in and none of the porousness of our every waking moment, the loose threads, the strange dreams, the forgettings and misrememberings, the portions of a life lived through others’ stories, the incoherence and inconsistency, the pantheon of dei ex machina and the companionability of ghosts. There are other ways of telling.”
― Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby
I've just started re-reading Rebecca Solnit's The Faraway Nearby, thanks to an old, long-out-of-touch acquaintance who first introduced me to it many years ago. My friend had written something about place and time, and the vagaries of age and experience. I gasped when I first read Solnit's words, like I'd been kicked hard between my shoulder blades; the air was forced out of my lungs.
When I lived in Manhattan --- when I was busy and in my thirties and running on auto-pilot --- I had a recurring dream, and I'd awaken with my mouth in a wide Munchian gape. Some nights I slept so lightly that I couldn't quite tell what side of sleep I was on; I dreamt that I was taking an enormous bite out of a boulder that had been mysteriously rolled to my feet in the middle of an empty field. It was a dream of stability, of the desire for control, for an anchor; it was about the need for something constant and sure at a time of crazy uncertainty. I sat up in bed with my jaw aching and my head splitting, my mouth open in attempt to swallow up the loose threads and the porousness of life where every experience --- good or hideous --- travels through you, blows you around like a tumbleweed in a tornado, and where change is the only thing you can ever really be sure of beyond death and taxes.
But change --- too much of it too fast --- can take a toll, and leave you spinning like a top. A few years ago, when this happened to us, Susan and I went to midcoast Maine, thanks to the kind generosity of a dear friend, Kathleen Hackett, with a pond-side summer cottage who said Take it; go. So we packed up the car and the dogs and the books and off we went, to catch our breath from the psychic whirlwind that had been the previous six months: the bone-aching grief over losing people we love to both death and rage, nonstop traveling, a book publication, expectations and deadlines, the forgettings and misrememberings, the gorgeous births and digital smiles, the boundaries vaporized, the sad feelings and the hearts broken. Never having seen our friend’s cottage, I imagined that the walls would be white-washed, as though the broad brushstrokes and watery paint on wood might engulf me. Miraculously, they were, and the floor newly glazed the color of Devon cream. And when the sun streamed in through the wide windows facing Hosmer Pond, everything --- the books, the boxes of toys, the Legos on the coffee table, the eleven string guitar because one was missing, the paintings --- shone quietly in the house. It felt fresh and old, and filled with another family's affection for each other.
Minutes after we arrived that late Saturday afternoon, Susan and I positioned two slip-covered brown and white chairs in front of the window, facing each other, as though we were on trial, and fell dead asleep. I watched her, silently, until I couldn't keep my eyes open any longer. We slept that way for hours, sitting up like a pair of old women in our separate seats, waking up long after the sun had set. When I stood, I felt heavy and water-logged, and filled with the tears of an exhausting, labyrinthine time that had been --- with its breathtaking joy and blistering loss --- too much to bear.
For the two decades that Susan and I have been together, we've always spent at least a few weeks every year in a cottage or a cabin. Our vacations always somehow managed to follow arduous times: either we had too much work or we had none. Feast or famine. Weeks after we lost my dad to a car accident in 2002, we went to a tiny house in Vermont, to which we returned every autumn for almost ten years; the year following my dad's death, we lost Susan's Aunt Ethel. The year following that, we lost Susan's Aunt Sophie. A few years later, we lost my cousin Harris. Four years after that, I lost most of my family to division.
No matter the circumstances or location, every night found me and Susan cooking together in someone else's kitchen, making long, drawn out things we'd absolutely never cook at home --- things that take time and energy and are old-worldly, like the hand-cut pasta I rolled out on a Vermont tag sale dining room table, cutting it with a knife. Or long-rise bread. But when I stood up from my chair at our friend’s cottage in Maine, I realized that this time, Susan and I hadn't planned what we'd cook while we were away.
This is what most of us fail to realize: that when the mind and heart are overrun --- when your cache is full and your brain starts to send out 404 messages --- your body gets the spillover, and then plays badminton with it.
We hadn't even talked about it.
This is, in part, because God or the Universe (or whomever is controlling the marionette strings) is quite the little yuckster, with a totally warped sense of humor. It wasn't enough that when we left for our friend’s cottage, I felt soul-sucked and incapable of a straight thought; my body also decided that it had had quite enough too. This is what most of us fail to realize: that when the mind and heart are overrun --- when your cache is full and your brain starts to send out 404 messages --- your body gets the spillover, and then plays badminton with it. Years ago, when I was having my jaws-around-the-boulder dreams, I was also felled by some weird illness that resulted in raging fevers and a twenty-pound weight loss (I should only be so lucky now). When Harris died, I broke my ankle going down my front stoop one night to walk the dog, and I instantly went into shock. When I lost my father, I was diagnosed with a controllable but potentially deadly heart condition that was discovered by chance.
Face it, the doctor said. Your heart's broken.
You don't know the half of it, buddy, I thought.
In the weeks before we went to our friend’s cottage in Maine --- in the throes of dealing with loss and withering strife --- virtually everything I ate made me ill; the comfort foods to which I normally turn --- the pastas and breads --- betrayed me. The places where I always sought culinary refuge and sustenance deceived me. Cooking was the last thing on my mind.
So I didn't plan to spend any time in my friend's kitchen until we were there and I realized --- hiking every day with Susan and our dogs, reading in silence, watching the water, and slowly mending body and heart with the kindness of family and friends old and new --- that I was slowly getting my appetite back. I would just have to think about food and life and what it means to be nourished, in a very different way.
Listen, I thought, I am not myself.
Only I was.
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