Further From The Flame Than I Knew

I sometimes have a one-plate rule.  Actually, it’s not even a rule, it’s just how I eat.  Except for when I don’t.  Today is one of those days.

The table at Martha's, post meal.  The pies have been put away, but my copy of "Love, Sex and Astrology" has not.
The table at Martha’s, post meal. The pies have been put away, but my copy of “Love, Sex and Astrology” has not.

It is Christmas and I am at Martha’s house with her son Louie, his girlfriend Katie, Jack and Jonnie.  There is enough food in the kitchen for triple the size of our party.  I have reloaded my plate, even though I have not finished what is on it, adding a second piece of ham and a small spoonful of macaroni and cheese, which I did not try the first time around.  I pile it on top of my salad – greens with roasted root vegetables, gorgonzola cheese, walnuts and pear.

The macaroni is delicious.  Made with sour cream, cream cheese, and cheddar and parmesan cheeses.  I say it is perhaps too rich, and laugh, thinking about those people who say that foods are too rich or too sweet.  No such thing.

Except for when they are.  This is one of those times.

I put my fork down.  My brain wants more but my belly says no.  Or perhaps it is not my belly but some higher-self that is constructed of painful memories.  The higher self that says don’t put your hand on the hot stove.

Trouble is, I’m the type that likes to bring my hand really close to the burner, to see how close I can get, to feel the heat without getting burned.

It is this second plate.  It is the boy I spent the night with several months ago. And, knowing he could not possibly give me what I want, and that once I am physically involved my perception gets blurry, spent a second night with him anyway.

It is my years of vain efforts to try to drink like other people.

The higher self speaks to me.  Passover.  1990-something.  I still live in Detroit and my parents are still married, but they do not live in my childhood home.  Neither do I, which means I am somewhere between 21 and 24 years old.

I am thin for the first time in my life.  Really thin.  I am rigid about my eating and exercise.  The kind of rigid that makes me not all that much fun to eat with.  I feel like I have cracked the code.  That I will never be heavy again.  That I am fixed.  I am mistaken.

My mother has made some sort of gelatinous kosher-for-Passover dessert.  It is an experiment, as is every kosher-for-Passover dessert, where chemistry and good taste are at odds in the never-ending quest to make tasty sweets without flour.

I have one.  Then another.  And another.  They are not even good but I cannot seem to stop myself.  My mother clears the table and brings them into the kitchen and I follow, secretively, wolfing down a few more.  As if anyone is paying attention.

Next I know I am in the upstairs bathroom, on the floor, trying to make myself throw up. But I cannot.  My mother asks if I need to go to the hospital.  I say no because I cannot imagine what they will do to help me.  I lie on the cool tile with my pants unzipped and wait for this feeling to pass.

I tell Martha and Jonnie this story, and that eating too much feels scary.  Which is not to say that I don’t overeat, because I do.  And today is likely to be one of those days.  But I do not eat to sickness and have not in many, many years.  The desire has been taken from me.  It is a miracle.

As is my reaching out to that dear, sweet boy only one more time.  And when the response was tepid, not returning to him, trying to convince him, or myself, that it, that we, could be otherwise.

As is my not trying to drink like other people for more than six years.  Instead, putting down the drink entirely.

I finish my plate.  Slowly.  A bit later I have a sliver of pumpkin cheesecake and one of chocolate pecan pie.  I tell Martha to cut them as wide as her finger and she does.  I am breaking one of my holiday rules.  Kind of.  I do not eat anything not homemade.

The pies come from First Slice – a not-for-profit which sells “subscriptions” for homemade meals and uses the money from those subscriptions to feed the same meals to hungry families in Chicago.  Martha assures me the pies are more homemade than if she made them herself.

I have a second round of slivers.  Am I playing with fire?

Walking home, the streets are freakishly quiet.  I am carrying a bag of leftovers – salad, ham, roasted roots, sweet potatoes – leaving the pies, and the Lindt truffles at my place setting, on Martha’s table.

I feel the snow on my face.  I feel my gut.  Satiated, but not stuffed.  I have “broken” several of my “rules,” and, miraculously, feel further from the flame than ever.

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Artist Date 48: I Think The Fish Guy Likes Me

There is something decidedly unappealing about gazing into the center of a slab of beef.

Perhaps pork is better.

William "For Sunday's Dinner."
William Michael Harnett. “For Sunday’s Dinner.”

It didn’t bother me to see hocks of pork bolted to a wooden bar, then sliced paper-thin, and served to me, when I was in Spain.  Neither did the whole chickens and rabbits hanging from hooks in the market, which I took photographs of, then framed and hung in my kitchen.

I am at the Art Institute Chicago for the member lecture and preview of “Art & Appetite: American Painting, Culture and Cuisine.”  Artist Date 48.  It is dark and warm in the auditorium.  A slide of a still life – fruit and meat – is projected on-screen.  And then another, a fish.

They are not beautiful.  They do, however, evoke a flood of food memories.

Like the time I received a whole, smoked salmon.

It was my 39th birthday and I threw a big potluck soiree.

The man/boy I was crushing on – but could, and would, do nothing about as I was married – was the first to RSVP, saying he would bring Tang.  I laughed.  Knowing him, it might have been true.

Except it wasn’t.

The night of the party, he arrived with a box in his right hand – carrying it like a tray, high above his shoulder.  His name was on the side in black magic marker.  This was something he had ordered.

Inside was an entire smoked salmon.  Head.  Tail.  Everything.  Glistening.  Beautiful.  Although not Jewish himself, he seemed to intuitively know the way to a Jewish girl’s heart was through cured fish.

“He likes me,” I thought, beaming.

The next morning I made scrambled eggs with onions and the leftover smoked salmon.  One of my girlfriends had come to town from Los Angeles to celebrate.  Over coffee, I said the words out loud.

“I think he likes me.”

She disagreed, insisting the fish was about him and how he wanted to be perceived.  That it meant nothing about me.  I didn’t persist.  It didn’t matter.  I was married.

I hadn’t thought about the fish story in a while.  Or the fish guy, which my friends and I affectionately called him from then on.  He moved away while I was still married — to fish.

Memory wrapped in food.  It seems nearly impossible to separate the two.  I am reminded of this all week while leading Weight Watchers meetings and trying to encourage a conversation about what makes Thanksgiving memorable – besides food.

Norman Rockwell.  "Freedom From Want."
Norman Rockwell. “Freedom From Want.”

For the most part, the members are having none of it.  They want to talk about macaroni and cheese.  Stuffing.  Pumpkin pie and cranberries from a can.  One woman mentions waking her daughters late in the evening, dressing them, and taking them shopping at midnight. I would have loved that, I think.  She is creating tradition.

I think about living in California and riding my bike Thanksgiving morning – before the feast at Tim’s house.  I think about the printed menus Tim placed at each seat, like Martha Stewart.  About roasted root vegetables and pumpkin gnocchi.

I think about the year I got married and leaving for my honeymoon on Thanksgiving Day.  Eating breakfast with Tim and his roommate, Steven at the International House of Pancakes near the airport.

I do not mention any of this.  It is their meeting.

The exhibit moves from still life to real life.  There are rationing cookbooks.  Bright Spots For Wartime Meals – a Jello cookbook.  The words, “Armed with a can opener, I become the artist-cook, the master, the creative chef,” from the Can Opener Cookbook, are stenciled on the wall.

They remind me of a story I once heard about the “original foodie,” M.F.K. Fisher.  Suspicious that her celebrity kept those about her in silence, she once made a meal entirely from canned foods.  When her guests swooned, confirming her intuitions, she informed them of the origins of their dinner.

There is a menu for a meal honoring Fisher, created by Alice Waters, owner of Chez Panisse.  She is the Berkeley, California chef known for purple hats, and for bringing seasonal, local ingredients – cooked simply, cooked well – back into fashion, beginning in the early 1970s.

And there is a menu from Chez Panisse, celebrating Bastille Day in 1976, as well.

chez panisseI ate there just once.  On my birthday.  I do not recall which year.  I saved the menus – prix fixe, with gorgeous drawings of figs on the cover – for a long time, imagining I would frame them and hang them in my kitchen one day, along with my food photographs.  I never did.

Strangely, I do not recall what I ate.  I remember our server.  And the cost of the meal for two – $300.

Driving home in the first snow of the season, I chew on Brazil nuts – 30 grams of them weighed out and tucked in a small plastic container.  Just a snack.  I am full on memory.

No Longer Waiting. And Other Little Miracles

I have a bit of a sugar hangover.  I blame the French meringues.  Stacked in big glass jars.  All shades of gorgeous.  Purple cassis.  Cocoa salted-caramel.  Yellow-cream.

2013-10-06 13.12.36I blame the lemon and apple tarts, covered with glazed domes, glistening, yellow and red.  So shiny and perfect, at first I think they are glass.

I am at my cousin Andrew’s wedding.

I had not planned to eat so much sugar.  I never do.  Just like I never planned to drink so much, for things to go sideways, as they often did.  Especially at weddings.

This is no longer my experience.  At weddings.  Or anywhere else for that matter.  I don’t stick my hand in the cake (already cut up and served, thank goodness) on the way out the door.  I don’t offend the groom’s cousin by dissing where he lives.  The bride doesn’t have to separate me and her 17-year-old boy cousin who I am grinding with on the dance floor.  The one who thinks perhaps this is his lucky day.  Or night.

I am grateful.

And I am triggered.

By this girl – a woman, really – who reminds me of me when I drank.  She stumbles back to the hotel with us, barely putting one foot in front of the other.  Shuffling.  Earlier, sitting at the bar, I watched her eyes roll back in her head.  Her words don’t make any sense to me.  She is speaking gibberish.

I remember making dinner for my girlfriends many years ago in California.  Being drunk before they arrive.  My friend Rainey, sweetly, sadly, telling me she doesn’t understand what I am saying.

Nobody tells this girl she doesn’t make sense.  No one seems to mind.  She smokes a joint thick as a cigarette and waves it about.  I have to leave.

I am triggered by my brother.  Showing up to the wedding with his new girlfriend.  It isn’t her.  Or him, for that matter.  But that he always has a girlfriend.  Always had a girlfriend.  Always.

I am triggered by my aunt’s stories of dating in her 40s, after her divorce.  The seeming line of suitors, one more exciting than the next, waiting for a chance to be with her.  Her year in Italy, living with a Count.

My aunt and I.  She is so beautiful.  I can imagine her line of suitors.
My aunt and I. She is so beautiful. I can imagine her line of suitors.

This is not my experience.  Any of it.  And yet, the shame that rises is all mine.  It is so familiar.  The shame I used to feel in my drunken-ness.  The shame I still sometimes feel in my alone-ness.  Even if I have – mostly – chosen it.

So sugar seems like a good idea.  At the end of the night.  Alone, in my cousin’s hotel suite.  Tired.  Waiting for him and his husband to take me back to their apartment where I am staying.

The meringues are like a siren.  The shiny slices of mango torte know my name.  Even the leftover pastry from the morning is alluring.  All from the patisserie where my cousin works.

I sample each, many times over.  Quickly.  And then…I stop.  I realize I am going to be physically uncomfortable very soon if I continue.  I say this out loud to myself.  I realize I am uncomfortable in my skin right now.  Triggered.  I call my friend Matt and we talk it through.

I do not shame myself for using food.  It is a small miracle.  A victory.  As is the stopping while I am in it.

This morning, it all feels a long time ago.

I am walking to the market to pick up some yogurt and produce for the apartment.  A coffee.  I am dropping into “my life” here in Minneapolis.  My life for two and a half days.

I marvel at how easily I can make a place my own.  Like I did in Dublin, with Steven.  Renting an apartment.  Finding my coffee shop.  My grocery.  My people in meetings in church basements.

I’ve done this in many places.  In Brussels.  In Charleston.  Even my hometown, Detroit.  Here, this morning in my cousin’s city, I remember a time when it wasn’t like this.

I was 17.  My parents sent me to Los Angeles to visit my cousin – their high-school graduation gift to me.  It is my first time traveling alone.  I am terrified.

Andrew goes to work, leaving me with a key and suggestions of where I might go while he is away.  Places I can walk to right out the door.  There are plenty.  Surprising for Los Angeles, but true.

I can’t leave the apartment.  I am stymied.  Paralyzed.  I hang out with the cat.  Listen to Carly Simon.  Smoke his weed.  Drink his booze.  And wait for him to come home.  While Los Angeles waits for me.

It is no different in the years that follow, as I continue to visit him in Los Angeles.  I stay in when he is gone.  Alone.  Afraid.

Perhaps it’s just age.  Or maybe it is travel.  But I cannot imagine sitting inside today, waiting.

Just like I can’t imagine being the drunk girl at the wedding.

I can almost imagine men lining up to date me, like they did for my aunt.  And that in itself is another miracle, that I can even imagine it.  Even if it hasn’t happened.  But I’m not waiting on that either.

The wedding.  The real reason I am here.
The wedding. The real reason I am here.

Instead, I think about now.  About dancing all afternoon at the wedding.  A three-piece band –  keyboard, stand-up bass and drummer – playing jazz and swing.   About Peter swinging me around the floor.  A strong lead, I follow easily.  He dips me at the end of each song and I smile big.  It is not a love connection.  We are just dancing, having a great time.

About Emiko, my cousin’s friend from Los Angeles.  She literally watched me become an adult, in those years that I visited, when I afraid to leave by myself.  We talk as though no time has passed, picking up the thread of easy connection and filling in the blanks.

About Monica, my cousin David’s wife.  The last time we saw one another was at my going-away party – when I was leaving California, with my then husband, for Chicago.  The city I embraced as my own – even though it was his dream that brought me here.

About her words to me.

She tells me she is excited for me.  For this time in my life.   For the adventures I’ve lived, and those I am about to live.  That I look amazing.

She doesn’t see the fear.  The worry.  Just this woman who flew in just this morning to show up for her cousin.  For her family.  For her life.  Not waiting…for anything.  For anyone.

This morning, walking, writing, making Minneapolis mine, if only for a moment…I see the same woman.   No longer waiting.

Artist Date 34: In It’s Proper Place

2013-08-11 15.45.12I hired a professional organizer.

I have admitted that so many areas of my life had become unmanageable, and then asked for help.  So why not here?  I’m tired of the stacks and stacks of paper that have no home.

I am, as Maggie – the professional organizer – said, “the tidiest, unorganized person” she has ever met.

We met last week for a consultation.  My assignment prior to our first paid meeting, this coming Tuesday, was to go to The Container Store and “just browse.”  My only guidance was to think of “boxes” – four of them.  In.  Out.  To Be Dealt With.  Want to Keep – Just Because.

We agreed I would take photographs of items that interested me, but that I would buy nothing.  It seemed like an easy Artist Date – Number 34.

I was mistaken.

I rode my bike over to The Container Store this afternoon.  Tossed my basket in a cart and began my work.  Up and down every aisle.

Almost immediately, I was overcome with sadness.  All around me, groups of people.  Couples shopping together.   Roommates shopping together.  Moms and dads and bound-for-college kids shopping together.  Together.

I remembered shopping here with my ex – when we moved to Chicago for his residency.  I felt wistful stumbling over the collapsible mesh cubes – the kind we bought to store our record albums.  He didn’t think they would work well, but I knew better.  Three of them sat under the Parson’s table, holding our music collection – his and mine.  I left them in Seattle.

Albums I bought in high school at Sam’s Jams in Ferndale.  The Specials, debut album of the same name.  Elvis Costello, “Punch the Clock.”  Howard Jones, “Human’s Lib.”  My mother’s copy of the original Broadway production of “Hair.”  My brother’s copy of Queen, “A Night at the Opera.”  There is a piece of masking tape on the front cover with his name and our telephone number written in magic marker.  I’m not sure how I ended up with it.

hairI knew every word to every song, having spent hours on my blue-shag carpeting, in my bedroom, singing along with the words printed on the album sleeves.

I don’t have a record player, so I left them.  Plus, they were too cumbersome to pack.  Funny thing is, it’s not the lost records that choked me up.  It was the damn mesh cubes.

And the laundry aisle.  I remember spending hours trying to find just the right laundry bin to collect my massage sheets and take them back and forth from my office to home, to be washed and folded.  First I bought a cart with the idea that I would take the train to and from my office.  With sheets.  In the winter.  I quickly gave up this environmentally-conscious fantasy and started driving to work.

I found a lot where they cut me a deal because I was a local business owner – $14 a day.  A steal, considering I was right off of Michigan Avenue.

Tony, the Palestinian kid who hooked me up, got fired right before I moved away.  I always felt badly about it – even though I hadn’t done anything wrong.  I used a red, collapsible “laundry” backpack to haul my sheets the six blocks from the lot to my office.

I missed having someone to discuss options with today.  I suppose that is why I took photographs, to discuss them with Maggie.

I looked at fabric bins.  Metal bins.  Cardboard bins – some made of bright, solid colors, others printed with flowers and graphic designs.  Bins made of recycled paper.  I snapped photographs of each product and its accompanying card, describing the item and listing its price.

2013-08-11 15.38.34I got distracted by travel supplies.  Luggage tags.  Hanging dop kits.  (I need a new one.  Mine is torn.)  And Ziploc bags for creating more packing space – like the space bags I used when moving cross-country.  I stacked my dresses and trousers inside, while Michael used a vacuum cleaner to suck the air out.  We were giddy when the first was complete.  Shrink wrapped clothes.

I remembered that I needed hooks for hand-towels in my bathroom.  Milk crates for my prayer and meditation nook – to lift my deities and ritual items off of the floor,  and to be covered with a piece of fabric I bought in the market in Kigali.

I also remembered that Maggie and I discussed finding a solution that didn’t involve putting anything else on the dining table – which is also my writing desk, my art table, and where I spend about 80 percent of my time when I am home.

I looked at hanging solutions.  There weren’t many.  A few different kinds of folders that hang from the wall.  Some painted metal.  Some plastic.

Then I wandered into the Elfa department – custom solutions for the closet.  So complex there are employees specific to just this department.  I know people go wild for the yearly Elfa sale, as it is pricey.

And yet, open, wire drawers on casters seemed to make sense.  With a top to hold my printer.  I looked at other shelving units as well.  I remembered our conversation about rethinking how I consider my dining area.  That is it really more multi-purpose.  Think function rather than fois gras or fondue.  I serve neither.  But I do throw a hell of a dinner party.  And it needs to work for those occasions too – especially as Rosh Hashanah is right around the corner and for the past 19 years I have, more often than not, hosted a holiday meal for stray Jews and others.

I thought about my friend Tom who is going to string two lines of wire across the wall opposite the windows so I can hang photographs, cards and collages with metal clips – slightly reminiscent of the drying lines in the darkroom I once inhabited.

I picked up several catalogs, tucked them into my bike basket, and did a final sweep of the store.

I felt myself welling up the entire ride home.  I wanted to be excited but I wasn’t.  I was sad.  Acutely aware that this was yet another step in creating my home, my life, without my ex.  Acutely aware that we don’t talk much lately – my choice, to save both my heart and my sanity.  All of this necessary, but still painful – nearly a year after our divorce was final.  Time takes time.

I thought about something Maggie said.  That there is always something more under the disorganization – something else going on.  She believed the stacks of paper, the lack of “home” for my things, was me being afraid I couldn’t put my hands on something when I needed it.  A need to keep all of my things near.

My friend Kevin refers to this as my issue with object impermanence.  The notion that until a certain age, children do not believe in that which they cannot see.  Put a towel over your hand, et voila, you have no hand.  At least in their minds.

It’s like that with me and people sometimes.  If I can’t put my hands on them – see them, feel them, hear them – it is as if they were never there.  It’s better than it used to be.  At least to me.  I’m not sure what Kevin would say.

So this organizing business – finding a home for my things, learning to be ok with them in their proper place – maybe it will spill over into the other areas of my life.  That the people I can’t put my hands on anymore – for a variety of reasons –perhaps they too will find new homes.  Tucked away in my heart.  Never gone.  But in their proper place.

I Released The Gold and Diamonds of My Past

rings I released the gold and diamonds of my past.

Handed them

To a stranger.  And pocketed

A check for $217.

It was a generous offer.

Commodities.

No consideration of

Labor, artistry,

Time.

Only weight.

Once I would have drunk

This pain.  Eaten

This pain.  Fucked

This pain.

Fuck this pain.

No more.

It waits until

After

The headache, the heartache

The bellyache.

Waits

For tears.  For

Grieving.  I am

In a garden awash in violet.

13-L-7ED93F53-4573380-1280-100Hidden behind

Deceptive trees.

Hidden like the little stone

Of my heart.

I offer to take

A photograph.  Sweet lovers.

They will return home, holding

Evidence.  Their time

Together.

A line of people

Sit,

On a wooden footbridge, feet

In rows in water,

Still, man-created

Stream.

I join them.

Peel the yellow straps

From my ankles and plunge

Into the cool wet.

feet in waterSun burns hot

On my neck.  Kissing

My shoulder.

Spring has come slowly

This year.  I long

For the earth’s tongue

On my skin.

Inside my wallet,  Glass horse.

Ceramic salmon.

Medallion.  Roman numeral five.

Animal-spirit guides.

Passing of sober days.

Talisman.

Is man?

And a single

Penny.  Consider my wish.

For love.

For THAT kind of love.

Tongue on my shoulder.

Slow to come.

Cum.

Cool.

Wet.

I let go

Of another piece

Of metal.

Watch it sink to the bottom,

A lost and found of wishes

Dreams, prayers.

In water, still.  Wish,

Still.  Dream,

Still.  Pray,

Still.