Sunday, August 12, 2012

And Then It Hits You

Most students think that writing means writing down ideas, insights, vision. They feel that they must first have something to say before they can put it down on paper. For them writing is little more than recording a pre-existent thought. But with this approach true writing is impossible. Writing is a process in which we discover what lives in us.  --Henri Nouwen

Maybe I've been going at this all wrong.
I have long harbored bitter jealousy toward people who always seem to have something interesting to say. I conclude that they must lead a different life, a wildly interesting life, where things happen and those things can be written about in witty, spare paragraphs where my life of quiet desperation and slipshod housekeeping was once full of stories but now trundles along on quite a dull path indeed. "What do I write about once all the good stories are told?" I seem to ask myself.
A ridiculous question. Whose good stories are all told? Not even people who are dead, I imagine, since there are quite a few friends I have lost whose stories are told by everyone who remembers them, and not all the same ones, either. So here's me, getting over myself.

       I'm thinking about Facebook a lot right now. And don't worry, I'm not planning on going off on how Mark Zuckerberg may have single-handedly brought down civilization by miring every person with a computer in a mind numbing swamp of rude cartoons and cat pictures.  Nah, I'm going to complain about the collapse of respectful discourse.
      It is pretty well established that the computer grants people a boldness they may not otherwise possess. I might not get in a shout-down argument with my political opponent in Dunkin Donuts over a bagel twist, since that would be rude and unseemly, but hey! I can call them (subject)-phobic crypto-(subject) subjects on Facebook, and gleefully click 'Like' on anything that insults them  effectively and entirely, skipping around sharing perverse memes like a mean little fairy flinging glitter. Gritty, scratchy glitter.
     If I'm honest, I'll admit that the first "But....but..." is my own. Something of the 10 year old me surfaces when I think about this, the girl who sullenly declares "But THEY started it." But logic prevails. It has to. Look, there are lots of things people will never agree on. There is absolutely nothing that can be done about this. But we all have choices. We all have the choice to say, look, I don't think we are in the same place on this, but I want to understand better where you are coming from. This is absolutely without risk. It is not 'letting down the side'. It isn't sedition. It is making an actual effort to understand the set of assumptions and conclusions that drive a person's opinion REGARDLESS of how spurious you might think they are. And when two people who disagree sit down and agree on one thing-- speaking and listening with respect, that's when the magic happens.

1. You are dealing with a PERSON, not a party, not a PAC, not a side, not 'Big Whatever'.
2. You may get an opportunity to dispel a myth. Or have one of your own dispelled. This is a burden you get to put down. The other thing you may get to put down is that big brush you have been painting with in describing whomever you identify as your opposition.
3. You may find out that at the end of the day we all want the same good things.

I've always had the suspicion that treating people with compassion and respect regardless of whether it is returned, indeed, even if it isn't returned, is less exhausting than nastiness and judgement.

I've been noodling on this for a while but it was driven home to me in an odd way. Talk show host Jimmy Kimmel has a bit where he has celebrities read some of the things people say about them on Twitter. Something about seeing the person's face when they read what others have said made me wonder whether we've taken evil and called it honesty. And whether in our hyper-connectedess we've depersonalized other people even as we are in each other's lives like never before, to the point where we think we can be as "honest" as we like with no consequences. We forget that the simplest tools can be weapons, depending on how they are used.

Monday, August 06, 2012

Bookin' and Cookin'

I wouldn't say that I own a whole lot of valuable stuff.
I do have favorite stuff though, and this is a wee snapshot of some of that stuff; my carefully curated cookbook collection. (Carefully curated; not necessarily carefully arranged. Or even frequently dusted if I'm honest.)
     My love of cookbooks started early. My grandmother had a hutch in the kitchen that held, among other things, a large Williamsburg Cookbook of fancy colonial dinners one ostensibly whipped up over an open fire in pots suspended on iron hooks while defeating the British and banging out some tallow candles, a fabulously illustrated Southern Living cookbook full of recipes featuring peaches and pecans that I'm fairly certain we never tried, and the frequently used Philadelphia Orchestra Cookbook, a wildly successful fundraiser that yielded the most popular family recipe ever in the history of anything, a stuffing, boneless chicken, and gravy casserole that we came to refer to as simply 'Orchestra Chicken'. When I finally got my hands on my own copy of the cookbook, anxious to see what other history making recipes could be found within, I was a little frightened by 'zingy tomato aspic' and 'duck blood soup'. I'm still perusing this one, certain to find delicacies that don't involve quivering vegetable jello or the blood of any waterbirds.
     I have favorites. Some of my cookbooks are vintage, and even better, some are used, and have come with all sorts of treasures pressed in the pages. 'The American Woman's Cook Book', published in 1940 with a very patriotic eagle on the cover, came with two; a handwritten recipe in perfect Palmer method on newsprint-thin lined paper for 'frankfurters with sauerkraut' and a round fold-out set of directions for a rubber bushing model Cory glass vacuum coffeepot. (Once the height of convenience, this sort of coffee pot is now being sold by coffee 'geeks and purists'...if you are chasing the rush of a freshly roasted and carefully brewed caffeine buzz you can check in with these folks, arguably gurus of fussy coffee goodness.)
     My favorite vintage cookbooks reflect the zeitgeist of their decade in both instruction and admonition. 'The Vegetarian Epicure' by Anna Thomas, a vegetarian cookbook from the days when being a vegetarian was more fun and involved artisanal cheese by the pound, has a section for 'the two-hours later course' of after-dinner snacks, which is explained thus:
This two-hours later course is especially recommended if grass is smoked socially at your house. If you have passed a joint around before dinner to sharpen gustatory perceptions, you most likely will pass another one after dinner, and everyone knows what that will do-- the blind munchies can strike at any time.
I hasten to add that this particular cookbook did NOT come with anything fun stuck in the pages.

     One of the things I want to write about is cooking. I'm certainly not proposing some kind of Julie and Julia endeavor-- for one thing its been done and for another I'm not eating kidneys and scouring the Pennsylvania countryside for marrowbones. What I will do is meander through my dusty little shelf of cooking wisdom, throw some stuff in the oven, and see what happens. Food is celebration. Food is memory. Food is an understood language. Even in my mismatched, secondhand kitchen these recipes can sing.

Thursday, August 02, 2012

Writing to Write

     I've tried writing with no rules, and with strict rules and pledges; in fancy books and in any old notebooks; with hand turned fountain pens and any old giveaway ballpoint. I've been confused to silence by blogging, wondering where journalling fit in, whether it had a purpose beyond marking the fine line between what I did and did not dare to say aloud. Always hovering at the margins the truth; that there are many things I don't say aloud that I don't articulate anywhere at all.
    I know I chase a certain atmosphere by keeping a journal-- the books, the pens, the trappings seem to me more of a comfort than the words themselves; the doing, an escape-- the evocation of cabins, of sea air, of days spent in temporary escape where ability and possibility seem so simply and clearly limitless. I've always tried to write at times and in places where I could imagine (pretend?) that my daily introspection ran on some other, better track than that familiar map of fears, regrets, and inadequacies. The critical voice, the one that cut down weed and flower with equal determination and indifference has always been at hand to say "What's the point of this?" or, "What can you reasonably expect?" I suppose the accusations can be distilled to one theme: "Just who do you think you are?"
Maybe that is a question worthy of an answer-- not as some kind of defense or apology, but for my own satisfaction. Writing to please has left me paralyzed. The effort of meeting expectation is a curious source of resentment. Curious, because I enjoy writing things people like to read. But I am overly critical of my own writing, immediately discarding some ideas and overwhelmed by others. In any case the only way to develop ideas is to engage in the exercise, whether for an audience or not. Waiting for ideas to spring fully formed and relevant on demand is frustrating for no other reason than this is simply not how it works.
     So I set pen to paper (because that is how much of this begins) with no promise, purpose, or destination in mind. We'll see where it goes together.