I’m a faithful subscriber to BON APPETIT even though I rarely attempt one of the recipes. I know I will never make a Beef Bourguignon Pie or Seeded Buckwheat Cookies, but I love to imagine the people in their small Manhattan galley kitchens or their Aga stoves/sub Zero-fridges kitchens lovingly duplicating the recipes in the magazine. I like to think they’re serving their meals to cello players, aspiring actors, struggling writers and artists who are on the verge of a break-through at a rustic farm table that has big fat candles (unscented of course) set in saucers down its length and carafes of rough, honest red wine from some tiny vineyard in Italy. The conversation will range from Tolstoy to tap dancing, Frida Kahlo to perfect pommes frite, indie films to urban farmers. BON APPETIT is a secret world to me, much as California was when I moved there at 18. A magical land I could visit but never really be part of — a state of mind made up of San Diego sunlight, exotic flowers and fruit and the soul-astounding Pacific Ocean. I would love to live there, but I also cherish the homemade-with-love cherry-pie country of my real life, grounded in gritty reality and table talk that’s sometimes tense and antsy instead of artsy. I wish I were one of the people in the BON APPETIT spreads, those confident, well-dressed, well-educated dinner guests. But I’m afraid I will always be the one who knocks over the wine glass, who would rather stay home than pilgrimage to India, who sweats when she’s out of her social depth. And whose favorite dessert is humble pie with extra ice-cream, please.
My new sort-of routine is heading for the exotically-named and mundanely suburban Alhambra Hall, a public building set in a big lawn on Charleston harbor near my house, to watch the winter sunset. It’s not always spectacular, as on this day of moody gray clouds that remind me of a Japanese woodcut. I don’t make it on rainy days and I don’t make it on lazy days, but when I do show up, it pulls me into a 10-minute space of silence that is shivery and serene. The air is as crisp as a just-ironed, lightly-starched white shirt. Planes write soaring haiku paeans to the sky. The dog walkers are quietly convivial with each other while their companions cavort. I’m acutely aware of the contrast of being warmly bundled up while I breathe the chilled sauvignon-blanc air. A small delightful luxury that I have done nothing to deserve. When the sun starts to set, a golden light often sweet-talks the dormant russet marsh grass, and it seems to glow from within. And so do I.
When I was first divorced, two new friends invited me to dinner and played Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” for me. I was taking the first tentative steps into the world alone, and I’ll never forget the moment of illumination and clarity it precipitated. Suddenly I could see that the demolition of my marriage was also a chance to build a life that felt like home. Usually, I’m only able to recognize in hindsight crucial turning points in my life, those moments when I simultaneously mourn an ending and step toward a beginning. The ones that resemble epiphanies are rare for me, but I’m beginning to realize that I can take most any story I’ve created around my failures, losses or shortcomings and practice flipping it. Was that lover I parted ways with so tragically really the Fake Soul Mate Who Scarred Me For Life? Was it only a time of embarrassing foolishness, unanswered questions and lingering regret, or can I flip it and see the things I learned, mourn the powerful hurts we inflicted and be grateful for the moments of intense joy we shared in spite of the inevitable and damaging ending? It helps me to see that the stories I’ve created about my life and the people in it aren’t very accurate or useful. Any time I’m able to stop viewing my life through a narrow tunnel vision, it opens up a world of possibility I never imagined, like re-reading a book and suddenly discovering layers of meaning and multiple side plots. I guess we’re all unreliable narrators when it comes to our the tales we tell ourselves, and flipping the picture won’t necessarily reveal the “real” truth. But it can make our stories so much richer because everything that happens to us comes with a multitude of lessons and truths. In the process, we can meet ourselves anew, the strangers who have been walking side by side with us all this time just waiting for us to turn and embrace them.
“May your coming year be filled with magic and dreams and good madness. I hope you read some fine books and kiss someone who thinks you’re wonderful, and don’t forget to make some art–write or draw or build or sing or live as only you can. And I hope, somewhere in the next year, you surprise yourself.” Neil Gaiman
This video is a mashup of Darlene Love’s appearances singing “(Christmas) Baby Please Come Home” on the Letterman show every holiday for almost 30 years. This year was the last one for this tradition, but it’s a total treat to watch her belt it out over the years, with the last one just as strong and joyous as the first. What a song, what a voice, what a woman!
Homer called salt a divine substance, and in various religions, it was thought to repel evil spirits and used in purification ceremonies. I’m a salt and savory person and find sweets cloying after the first few bites. I love salted popcorn, chips and nuts. I love the way tequila is downed with a lick of salt, and the lingering taste of salt on skin after a swim in the ocean. Our tears are both the seasoning and cleansing of grief and heartbreak, rubbing salt in our wounds and healing them at the same time. No wonder, then, that when I was coughing, sneezing and feeling alternately chilled and fevered recently, I was drawn to a salt rub the same way wild creatures made their way to the old salt licks deep in the wilderness. In winter, my skin is wrapped up in layers and craves the rough slough of salt balm, the repetition of scrub, scrub and rinse, the ceremonial preparation for rebirth in the spring.
All too often, I wish for things that are easily within my reach. Things that could fall into my arms without effort or things that I wouldn’t be heartbroken if I never achieved them. My wish list is just too wimpy. This year, I’m going to add things that will seem like miracles if they happen, things that will knock me off my feet with joy, things that I dream about instead of doing. What’s on your list for 2015?
Is it a coincidence that I’ve seen two admiring references to Sister Corita Kent’s iconic book, Learning by Heart, in the last couple of weeks or a sign of the current zeitgeist? Her posters were everywhere when I was younger, and her book continues to be an inspiration. If you know someone who’s just starting their creative journey or someone who needs a kick in the creative ass, it will be a gift, a companion and a road map all rolled into one.
A miserable head cold, problems with my new iPhone, spending money on junk that no one really needs under the tree, on hold with a health insurance company for 45 minutes (45 MINUTES!) — all day I felt as if I were swimming against a tide of stupid problems that threatened to wear me out before I got to shore. But when the really nice customer service person finally picked up with all the information I needed, I realized how crass it is to complain about the health insurance I’m lucky to have. And later, when I was standing in a steam-filled shower to get warm and clear my sinuses, I suddenly thought how miraculous it was to have hot water come right into my house on demand 24 hours a day. And when I remembered there was an unopened bottle of prosecco in the refrigerator and a can of Campbell’s Tomato Soup that I was saving for a sick day, I felt humbled and embarrassed by everything I take for granted. And that’s the cure for the common cold, the calloused conscience and the discontented heart.
That’s how NPR described the place Lucinda Williams writes and sings from. It might seem weird to tout her new double album that so beautifully catalogs regret and misery and loneliness in this month of holly jolliness, but she bears witness to the human condition with the whisky, graveled voice of gritty truth. She’s the bitter night that shepherds endure alone. She’s the long dark night of the soul of anyone who has to go through this holiday alone. She’s the lonesome train that passes through town in the middle of the night. Put this music in someone’s stocking this year — someone who has a stand-up soul and is willing to go down to where the spirit meets the bone.