Wednesday, July 30, 2014

aLone

Melancholia camouflages itself in the blackness of my coffee, which I have crawled back to like the left-behind lonely lover I am. I submit to the cup because the cup throws uppercuts to the corners of my mouth every morning. Wake up! Smile! Say something to someone! Her knuckles whistle while my thoughts hop toward a disorderly hope. 

My mate left me for Massachusetts. Seventeen days he is away. 

I walk the dog. I unroll my yoga mat and stretch into Indian poses. I play guitar and pencil meaningless feelings into notebooks. I write lists to trick myself into feeling busy. I bake batches of rolls, cutting them open and patting their floury cotton insides with peanut butter and strawberries or butter cream and sliced tomatoes. I cycle the streets of the north side of the city, book shopping, grocery grazing, lake front exploring. I have this idea to bike to the ferris wheels downtown and ride it by myself, but when I get there the lines are long and there is a sign that says I can't complain if they sit me in a carriage with strangers. So I go home, wishing my people were here. 

Mom arrives on a Sunday to stay with me. I had told her no thank you many times. "Please don't spend your money. I'm about to live near you again." I say. 

I will spend my time writing. I have already decided. I won't be lonely; I have the internet. Such flagrant ignorance I am now embarrassed to say. 

My sister asks me to invite Mom. She really wants to come visit, she tells me, which makes me realize how much I really want her to come visit. 

I call her.

"Hi Rachel!"

"Hi Momma!"

"Are you sure you don't want me to come?" She asks.

"I do! Please come." I say, embraced suddenly by a sense of relief for the future structure in my summer. 

"Oh good!" She says, thrusting the portable phone to Dad whom I speak with for approximately three minutes before we hear, "I got tickets! I had enough points so I don't even have to pay!" 

Scott leaves with his sister in the wee hours of a Wednesday in July. When I wake up alone the next morning, my days stand on top of me, one foot is on my chest and the other is like lead on my soft belly, shouting for submission. The skin on my face expresses my inner turmoil with a spread of new pimples....because my introvert personality isn't enough to make my living alone more difficult...I need some ugly pink lumps on my cheeks to keep me honest and home alone as well. 

One night, I drink two jam jars of red wine. I voluntarily watch a violent television show, my eyes on the windows much more than the screen. Later I dance around our small living space while Janis Joplin's rasping cries reverberate through my sad drunken soul. How strange it is to listen to strangers singing, to the recordings of the dead? A bad ballerina I sloppily spin, slamming my elbow into a kitchen cabinet. I don't mean to sound like a sorry mess. This is how I cope with lonesomeness. I thought I could be like an old poet with my quiet observations. But my sentences are starting to resemble the ramblings of an illusive hermit. I don't want to be a hermit. I don't think a long beard would suit me. I speak to the cashier, the barista and the other dog owners at the park. The telephone helps a little, but it feels more like a tease. And the internet, it seems, is a mirage and a magic trick, leaving me with feelings of complete isolation and sorrow.    

After twelve days alone, I am so grateful for my mother's arrival. When I see her surrounded by airport architecture and unfamiliar travelers, my despair disappears. I make her salad for lunch and together we cook salmon and sauté zucchini for supper. We go to the movies and buy wine and watermelon at a grocery store. During our first two days together, I have so much to say it is like the spilling of my mobbed mind.  

I am a social creature. I have not evolved away from this truth. 

Three bottles of chardonnay, one chocolate bar, two salmon fillets, homemade bread, two small cups of gelato, 22 episodes of Frasier, a full French press of coarsely ground Mexican coffee beans every morning, her walking-loafers, the Art Institute of Chicago, fine Italian cuisine and a sweaty walk to share some sushi where I cannot stop cackling at her attempt to pinch seaweed salad with chopsticks. 

I make most of our meals. To compliment and thank me, she tells me to open a Bed and Breakfast. 

"I'm telling you, Rachey, bed and breakfast...Can Scotty clean? He can clean the rooms and you can bake." 

"Maybe when we're old." I say as I sit beside her.

I am moving home to Massachusetts. She's glad and so am I. She can say it now that it's really happening. I lean on her while we sit on the couch. I put my arm around her while we mosey down sidewalks. We are both delighted that I am no longer vegan. I make little breakfast sandwiches with tomato, cheddar cheese, lettuce, free-range hen eggs, poached with runny yellow yolks on my homemade toast. Butter on bread, feta over salad greens, chicken sausage grilled and cut, it is more than the flavor of this nosh, more than the tradition of such nutriment, I am just so happy to share supper again...without the pressured smiles to please me when I would create elaborate vegan feasts to impress my meat-eating clan. I have abandoned the rhetoric of diet books and look now to eat as organic, as simply and with as little stress as possible. I want food of old generations. Vegetables. Fruit. Bread. Nuts. Meat. Milk. Eggs. 

The third bottle of wine we share is impromptu. It is her last night with me and we shouldn't stay home, we decide. 

"Let's go get a glass of wine." She suggests as the credits conclude another 23-minute sitcom episode. We put on shoes and adjust our hair. Earlier, I had been crying on account of an encroaching anxiety swirling in my belly like a flock of birds before a storm. After my shower, when I open my mouth to speak, I sob instead. 

We walk to a nearby square and read menus from glass cases. "Look, they have a patio." I say pointing to a chalkboard. 

Inside, we are greeted at a tall dark wooden bar. A man, the manager I presume, leads us to a hidden garden with a fig tree and red flowers. We sit at a turquoise table. A young man with black eyebrows carries us curvaceous glasses of water, cloth napkins swaddling silverware and two small porcelain plates.  

"Wednesdays are half-priced bottle of wine night with the purchase of two entries." The blond waitress tells us. Also, their pasta and cheese are made in house. This settles our evening (as if sitting on my couch has any chance of winning our affections after this proposal.) It is early and we're the only patrons on the patio so we lean back talking and laughing at ourselves for sharing more chardonnay. When others arrive, I lean my collarbones against the table's metal edge and we sip, saying secrets and old stories. Slowly, we serve ourselves from our salad of heirloom tomatoes, soft mozzarella, olive oil and one sharp basil leaf. Next, the spinach ricotta tortelli arrives. I spoon the folded brown buttered dough onto our plates. I press the pasta to the roof of my mouth where it dissolves into the ingredients of Italy. The crispy cod is carried to us then, one fillet with capers and kale for her and one for me. Grilled bread with herb butter and marinated red pepper spread, cold white wine and something beautiful called Pistacchio Praline Semifreddo, which our young gentleman helper tops with one frothy shot of espresso. We are spoiled and stuffed and now sleepy and silly. All hail love! She is my Queen of Hearts. 

I hold the brick walls of the buildings as we walk to the gate on the sidewalk. Our tipsy giggles cause us to meander all the way home. She could stay until Saturday, she reminds me, concerned for my likelihood of loneliness. 

"No that's ok." I tell her. "I'll clean, shop and bake. I can do it. Scott will be here Saturday." 

I awake at 2am and begin thinking horrible thoughts. I go to the kitchen and eat a little roll with peanut butter. I pee and drink water and return to bed. Then I lie awake while my imagination plays picture shows of the generic tragedies of travelers: hijacking terrorists, engine failures, leaking gas tanks. In the blue light of the night, I look over at my mother sleeping. I stare at her high cheekbones which wear her soft pale skin so well when suddenly she opens her eyes and looks at me. 

"I'm having trouble falling back asleep." I tell her like a child.

"All that binge drinking." She says before closing her eyes and rolling over. 

This gets me thinking about a whole new problem. Am I back-peddling? I know I left the fruit cult to rejoin my tribe, but have I gone from extreme to extreme? Oh relax and enjoy your life, I tell myself before sleeping until sunrise. 

While she packs her pink bag, I tell her why I couldn't sleep. 

"Oh no, did you plan my funeral? I always plan the funeral." She says.

"No, but I was thinking about how if you died, I would kill myself." Since she is visiting me, I explain. I don't know why I tell her this. 

"Oh dear."

"So don't die. Please." I say.

We are nervous travelers, walking through the airport toward security and her terminal. Her bag is on my shoulder. She holds her boarding pass and driver's license. I don't cry when we hug goodbye, but I ask, "Can you let me know when you land?" She will. Usually we are the no news is good news type, however after last night's imaginative adventures, I would like to know that she's landed at Logan. 

It feels like he abandoned me, but I see now that it was me. I abandoned my people. I fell for society's seductive appeal toward digital desolation. I can just go online. I told myself. I can temporarily replace real relationships with telephone wires, video meetings, posts of pictures and email messages. This, I know now, is a dreadful oversimplification of the complexity of love. Only temporarily can I distract myself with a digital version of life. Eventually, I only yearn for the skin of my kin and the sanctuary of familial noise and the smell of a crowded stovetop. 

We say person, human or woman, but I am an animal. An intelligent animal, but one designed to work and to be with others. We once lived in packs, eventually villages, later houses with one telephone, one television and one kitchen. Nanas and Papas, Mommas and Daddys, brothers and sisters all together sharing space and supper. Now we all live separately, secluded by this civilization's renovations where privacy and independence construct walls out of state lines and philosophic differences. 
It isn't natural, this separation: separation from instinct, separation from one another. To fill the void, we build online communities of old photographs and type-written jokes. Monitored by advertisers, spell checked by droid dictionaries, we construct digital versions of ourselves. We are no longer people, but catalogues of data. Look around, everyone is addicted, lonely and scared as they stare so intently into screens. 


"I told Grandma how I thought you were born in the wrong era." My mother tells me as I wash at the kitchen sink. 

We, the careful consumers of my American generation are attempting to construct ourselves from scratch.  We want to be super human. So we stand back with our books, analyzing the society, and separating ourselves from it. We see cancer, diabetes, and obesity and afraid to find our flesh and bone categorized by medical professionals as diseased and destined toward early death, we retreat to the cookbook blogs, symptom checkers, and to essays of explanations. We fight french fries with green beans. We trade bison burgers for soy patties. We substitute wheat flour for gluten-free powder. We search for community and then classify ourselves. 
Vegan. 
Vegetarian. 
Flexitarian. 
Pescitarian. 
Paleo. 
Fruitarian. 
I am happy to free myself of labels. Currently, if anyone asks, I am a Fooditarian. I once scoured the internet for camaraderie. I traded in the history of my family for a new way of life, one with the most persuasive argument. But nature has shown itself. I thought I could outsmart my inherited digestive system, my milk grown bones, and my sensitive skin, but after two and half vegan years, my thoughtful philosophy was clobbered by the plates of my past.    

"You look healthy." My mother tells me. 

"Good! I was hoping you'd say that."  

When we return to the rustic land of Western Massachusetts, I will purchase my produce from the dirt smudged fingers of farmers, glass bottles of milk from the local dairy and eggs from nearby free-range farms. I will be home again where I belong, near my people. 

Saturday, I meet Scott at the airport train station. No more days alone. My person is here. We have two weeks to give Chicago a proper goodbye before we rent a tall truck and practice our geometry with luggage, furniture, crates and cardboard boxes. Then one August morning at 4am, we'll leave the midwest for our little apartment in the green grass of the northeast. But until then, we share cherry pie on a cafe patio, sip pints of yellow beer at the local brewery, watch matinee movies, order deep dish pizza and bicycle to the grocery store. I bake bread and we boil water for coffee. We stay up late, practicing for the formation of our future family. We walk the dog, read our books, play guitar and sing. We prepare for the great swap of our wanderlust youth for stillness.          


  


Thursday, July 3, 2014

This Omnivore's Resolve




I tie an apron around my belly, measure and mix the ingredients. Between my fingers, I squish and squash the dough, kneading and flipping the biblical food onto a floured board. 

Yeast 
Sugar 
Salt
Flour 
Warm tap water  

I am about to spend some weeks alone. I see the days already. They are stacked like the frayed, braided rungs of a rope ladder. Hold me up! I shout as I climb to Massachusetts where the arm of Cape Cod clings to the pinnacle, the faded roof shingles of east coast glory. I am moving home in August, abandoning Chicago and the idea of living anyplace but where I belong. I have a job in a little schoolhouse and it starts at the end of summer. Scott is going first, hence this foreboding loneliness. In a week, he and his sister will drive the 900 miles from here to there. He will have a job interview. Eventually he will return to say good-bye to the city and to pack a truck of our boxed up belongings. 

In a bowl, blanketed by cellophane and cloth, the dough rises, an expressive artifact.     

Nana was Italian. She hand rolled pasta and made chicken soup with lard. Papa was Irish. He gave me these blue eyes and my tendency toward wall flowery. Grandma is an English gardener who bakes dinner rolls, North Atlantic fish and thin cookie crisps. And when I write her letters, she writes me back. Grandpa is French Canadian. He digs for quahogs with his tan feet and drives his boat full throttle into every political debate set down on the dining room table, where he never refuses a cup of coffee or glass of scotch. 

An American hodgepodge, I bake my bread. 


Happily, I hop onto the nailed slats of this toboggan as it backslides toward housewifery and the history of my ancestors. For too long now, I have poised myself at the top of a metaphorical mountain, pointing fingers and sticking up my nose. 

Despite this self-inflicted separation, I am never really alone. For I come with a full stack of history books dating back to Ireland, Nova Scotia, England and Italy. In my pockets I have copper colored photographs and coal sketches, scratched polaroids and memories captured by digital film. In my pack, I have hammy down corduroys, fabric scrunchies, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and clip-on earrings. We, my husband and I, share this life, clinging to one another like magnets of opposite poles, but we are never detached. We are descendants. And behind us, tugging at our senses like a motley arrangement of webs are the memories of our childhoods. Threaded, they shred if not reinforced. I have snipped several of these strings, pronouncing wheat to be toxic and smoked salmon to be savage, but today I turn, grasp these ties and weave the twine into patterns before reinforcing them with bungee cords. Digging one of the hooks into my heart, I play the wires like harp strings, tugging to remember recipes, scents, tastes, textures and sounds. Who was I to think I could create a new culture? Never could it amount to the one given to me. The one cultivated by stories, blood, eggs and potlucks. Culture is as complex as Grandma's Garbage Soup and as filling as Nana's nine course Christmas feast. It is warm as Mom's sticky cinnamon buns made from scratch and Pop's plugged-in skillet of tightly packed blueberry pancakes. Because even the most delicious, beautiful vegan restaurant with the friendliest of staff could never reach into my childhood and rewrite the first chapters of my memoir.  

In the corner of our little kitchen stands a big brass statue of myself. I call her Hypocrisy. Shiny and small, she stretches one of her feet into her opened mouth and with the other hand, she grasps a cornucopia of farm fresh fare. On her shoulder hangs that leather, olive-green purse she never sold, despite her previously penned plans to do so.      

For two and a half years, I have been a verbose vegan, petitioning through prose my desire for the world to quit killing beasts for boots, belts and feasts. I obsessed over documentaries, books and online communities. Scott became a vegetarian at the same time, which felt like victory. His decision somehow made mine look less crazy. I was proud of his choice to eat atypically, despite the frequency with which I pretended to pump cow utters whenever he ordered his burrito with cheese and sour cream. Now, a couple years later, we have decided to abandon vegetarianism and live again as omnivores. 

A month ago, I diagnosed myself Deficient.
I set up bottles of supplements like some kind of ragtag army unit of broad-shouldered soldiers. "Now go in there and fight this approaching anemic enemy!" I ordered, throwing them back like an opened grenade. 

"Are your teeth blue?" My sister asks a few weeks later while we are having lunch in Boston. 

"Probably. I took an iron supplement on our way here." I explain, polishing my pearly powder blues with a paper napkin. "They're made of beets!" I say before turning to my brother and whispering, "I THINK I HAVE DEFICIENCIES!" To which he shakes his head and smiles. 

Vitamins. Nobody even really knows if these isolated nutrients DO ANY GOOD! And yet here I was popping them like salty popcorn. I want food to nourish me, not some chemical compounds manufactured by industrial scientists.  


After a year and a half of veganism, my digestive health started to decline. Nearly all foods caused internal yeast infections to bloom, belly bloating balloons to inflate and the skin on my face to burst into tender pink pimples. At the time, it did not occur to me that these reactions might be due to my animal-free diet. Instead I concluded that my body was sensitive and simply doesn't digest unhealthy foods. So I went more extreme and embarked on a raw, low fat, vegan diet. I ate pounds and pounds of fruit daily and an enormous salad every night. During the first three months, I was thrilled. Look at me everybody! I found the correct way for us humans to live! I wanted to shout from the tops of lawn chairs at crowded cookouts. My skin was clear and smooth, I had lost weight, I was obnoxiously happy all the time and I had infinite energy. I never even farted! And my armpits never really sweat or smelled. I had also stopped producing earwax and boogers and I had not had a cold or flu all year. However, my hair was falling out in a silent, scary sort of way and the absence of my period alarmed me. 

After several months searching for my missing menstrual and signs of hair re-growth, I returned to the cooked vegan diet. Packing in loads of lentils, tofu and supplements, I rapidly gained the weight back and the skin on my face had a fit. WHAT IS WRONG WITH ME? I am eating the healthiest diet I know of. For so long, I had expected to experience the sort of health I had read about. Just wait until my family sees how healthy I am, then they'll all go vegan! (And when this didn't happen) ...Juuuuuuust be patient. Any day now I'm going to look FANTASTIC and they'll start trading in their turkey for tofu, their steak for seitan, and their mozzarella for cashew cheese. I'll save their lives and the lives of countless animals!  I'll be a hero. 

This never happened. My scheme flopped like the rag doll I began to resemble: pale, thin and too emotionally weak to stand up for myself.  

I must give my body the credit it deserves. For it has tried very hard to get my brain's approval, doing its absolute best with the plant-based diet. However, I realize now that I must return to the butcher, the fisherman and the dairy maid for a small daily portion of flesh and curd. I use these unsavory terms so that I do not become disconnected from my food. Bacon is hog bits, steak is cow slices, eggs fall from hen holes and cheese comes from the sagging udders of a cow or goat. And for whatever complex reason, of which I may never fully understand, my body needs a little of this in order to function properly. For I, an American mongrel, raised on 2% milk, steak stir frys and breaded cod, simply require it. 

"Whoooooooo's gonna die first!" 

My meat-enthusiast brother and I once sang to one another. Imbedded in this snarky tune was a strained relationship where animal arteries and tempeh stretched between us, causing us both to gag and spew disprovals at the other. Well, Patrick, I won't be ordering five-egg omelets with two sides of pork sausages, but I will ask that when I see you in August you save me a small piece of whatever animal is charring on the grill. Don't get me wrong, my dear brother, I still believe in the power of kale, cucumbers, whole grains and organic local fruit. I am not re-negging EVERYTHING. I am just saying that perhaps eating domesticated animals who are fed appropriately, not injected with hormones or antibiotics and given room to roam, is not the evil I once believed it to be. And now I would like to saw down this fence of food fights we have built up between us. Here is my cloth white napkin, I wave it high enough for you to see. 

...And while I am at it: To all you curious social acquaintances and family members spouting your "WHAT ABOUT YOUR PROTEIN?" questions at backyard barbecues and holiday hootenannies, I want to award you all with invisible I-told-you-so-Rachel trophies. Congratulations.  

I would also like to apologize to you, Mom and Dad. I'm sorry if my vegan lifestyle sounded like an implied scream---HOW COULD YOU FEED ME MURDEROUS POISON ALL MY CHILDHOOD? YOU ARE HORRIBLE <HEARTLESS <PARENTS!---<I never believed this, but realize now how my straying from the culture with which you brilliantly and delicately surrounded me with, might make you feel sadly under-appreciated and entirely misunderstood. I am so sorry.   
Orthorexia Nervosa: (noun): an obsession with eating foods that one considers healthy. A medical condition in which the sufferer systematically avoids specific foods in the belief that they are harmful.
No black coffee, no cake of any kind, no pints of beer, no sips of wine, no bread, no chocolate, no tea! I had placed myself on this narrow pedestal. I will only consume raw fruits and vegetables. No vinegar, no oil, no grains, no legumes, no nuts, no meat, no milk! Nothing cooked! Nothing baked! Nothing fried, grilled, boiled, or steamed! Why would I eat anything that isn't perfect? Caffeine is a drug! Alcohol ruins your liver! Grains make you fat! VINEGAR IS POISON! And cooking kills so much of the nutrients!
       ...To an extent, some of these claims hold a little truth. However, I realize now, when digested responsibly, the damage by any or all of these is nothing compared to the sadness of separating oneself from her place in the universe. I love coffee shop culture, cold pale ales, PIZZA PIE, peanuts and baked sweet potatoes. I like sharing appetizers, pots of soup and strawberry rhubarb pies. I love sitting around diner booths, kitchen counters and picnic tables, sharing in the old gustatory way of food and drink. Fuck festering and fretting in the isolation of extremism. Why imprison oneself for the sake of an overly intellectualized argument? Wild nature is violent. That is the raw truth. And whether one lives in Iraq, Mexico or Vermont, violence is everywhere. Birds are eating worms. Humans are hunting, fishing and farming. Children are plucking berries and trampling insect ecosystems. Cats are torturing mice. Bears are catching salmon. Bats are biting into bugs. Women are raising chickens, turkeys and hens. They are milking cows and plucking feathers and stealing eggs. They are weeding gardens, planting seeds and feeding their friends and families. Evading the culture carved by my ancestors isn't as simple as attending a dinner party with my supper in a tupperware container because irregardless of my personal philosophical preferences or even my recent reacquaintance with nutritional nostalgia, the entire makeup of my molecular being is starving for the food of my youth. 

With a small set of binoculars, Scott watches me wander in and out of idealism like a bird in a storm. Once, I briefly caught the wind and soared. But eventually my body grew tired and I pummeled into the branches of the ancient familial tree where it had always stood, no matter how far I thought I had flown. Now it embraces my beaten body, entangling my harlequin ties into the cracks of its earthy bark. I quit fidgeting for freedom and see now the scars my scissors left the last time I was here. I don't want to wander away anymore. I want to be home. With one bungee hook dug into my senses, I take the other and hammer it into the heart of my history. Here I will build my nest. Hey Momma! I'm comin' home.