Really Truly

A few nights ago, we were in bed, pressed up next to each other like commas. In the darkness, I could only hear the low, comforting hum of night insects just outside and a very faint, almost abstract, swish of cars passing by on some main road. But mostly, it was quiet. 

This is it, I realized then. Isn’t this the adulthood I dreamed about? Here, in my husband’s arms, in my own house, in a bedroom the color of deep jade — this life, with all its surprises, is mine.

When we talk about our marriage, the five and half months of it, we tend to focus on the major plot points. And how could we not? Since our April wedding, we’ve walked through honeymoon illness (both of us), a collapsed lung, a hospital stay, a two month recovery, a move, the loss of both our grandfathers, and a job change. If this is what the first six months of marriage brings us, we joke, what will the next six hold?

I imagine they hold a lot of sweetness, just the way these last ones have. There have been tears and silly offenses — and serious ones — and surgeries and nights of going to sleep with a sink full of dirty dishes. But there have also been flowers and freedom and kinship and wild laughter.

I am deeply happy. These are the first words I have for it.

Move over, Julia.

 I’m just kidding. Julia, I adore you. I silently thank God for you most every morning, when I stand in front of the stove, sleepily stirring our morning scramble.  You, Julia, taught how me to make scrambled eggs the proper way. The only way. (The secret, for inquiring minds, is low heat + slow cooking time.) But, Julia. Your place as my number one culinary inspiration might be shifting. Because in Mexico, I met M.F.K. Fisher for the very first time.

“It seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others. So it happens that when I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it, and warmth and the love of it and the hunger for it… and then the warmth and richness and fine reality of hunger satisfied… and it is all one.” – M.F.K Fisher

On our honeymoon, I brought two suitcases: one for clothes, one for books.  After twelve pre-wedding weeks that were full of busy, the idyllic, uninterrupted days of Riviera Maya felt utterly foreign. We settled onto our beach bed early one morning, palm fronds dancing overhead, a mimosa by my side. I opened my book. We were married. The reality of new marriage isn’t reality—at least not in those first early days. Whisked straight from a glowy whirlwind wedding to warm white beaches in less than 24 hours, it was hard enough to wrap my mind around the fact of the man finally next to me in bed, much less his place next to me for the rest of our lives. It’s a strange cocktail you drink on honeymoons: part bliss, part disbelief. My head swam with him.

Near the end of our days in Mexico—when we had settled into our dream-like routine, when we had visited a Mexican doctor, when Jivan had watched him give me daily antibiotic shots, when we had clasped hands in the waiting room and felt suddenly married—I finally opened my last book, The Art of Eating by M.F.K. Fisher. This weighty tome is not just one book; it is five. Five of the most popular works from the woman who gave American foodwriting shape and weight. Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher lived and worked from 1908 to 1992, an 84-year run that witnessed multiple wars, the invention of the microwave, the birth of McDonald’s. Her writing is deeply personal, so intimate and sensuous and spot on it crackles.

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Years later, her clear, strong beacon of a voice still pierces through the nonsense about eating and speaks straight to me. She believed that eating is an art, and consequently, eating should be approached with honesty, simplicity, and pleasure. She prizes independence and confidence: knowing what you like and serving it without apology. She skillfully mocks the idea of balanced meals, proposing instead “a balanced day,” an idea that feels much closer to the natural rhythms of our desires and tastes. She was opinionated and fearless, unafraid to do and eat what just what she liked.

 I am not Mary Frances or Julia. I am just a 23-year-old bride, a young cook and a writer, with a fierce passion for what M.F.K Fisher would call gastronomy. As a kid, I set a small table in my bedroom with our best china and silver, prepared trays of “appetizers,” branded my bedroom as “The Cliffside Inn,” and invited my parents in for tea on a rainy afternoon. Eating is worth effort; I have felt sure about this since childhood.

If effort is a fire, it demands a kindling pile of time, energy, resources. And kindling is not limitless; adulthood forces us to decide how we spend what we have. Sometimes I have squandered what is mine. Sometimes I pit the cost of my effort against my laziness, and laziness wins. Before we married, laziness won out more frequently than I want to say. We ate out and poorly too many times. That season’s exhaustion accounts for some of my surrender, but mostly I just forgot how essentially a good meal nourishes us.

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Marriage, and M.F.K Fisher, have now freed me to cook and eat the way I have always wanted. Yes, a meal, be it for one or for twenty, is always worth the effort—but somehow, knowing that my meals are now for two makes the effort sweet. I am thinking about food more than I ever have these days. Practically: how shall I fill our bellies? And for how much and with what and from where? Professionally: how can I (or should I?) turn this internal fire into fuel, one that could sustain me materially, as well as emotionally? Spiritually: how is a meal a door? How is a humble offering of what we have—right now and not someday—an opportunity to crucify my pride?

I do not know the answers to these questions; I am a young cook and a writer. But at day’s end, I find myself in the kitchen, chopping, stirring, Jivan by my side. There are answers, and some day, we will find them. In the meantime, dinner is served.

I Cutta, You Sweepa

Like most people, I have no memory of my first haircut. It was my mother’s handiwork, I’m sure, because we were a family of six then, and she was resourceful. Did I squirm, wispy reddish-orange ringlets falling to the floor?

Later, I stood in front of the bathroom mirror in my Sunday best, submitting
grouchily to her firm hand on my head and the pull of the brush through my hair.
Owwww, I wailed. I’m sorry, she answered as she slid the clasp of a grosgrain bow
firmly into my scalp. Hot resentment swept through me at the hurried injustice of
this Sunday morning ritual. Now I’m grown and less tenderhearted, more aware: the sacrifice of time on a busy Sunday morning to “do” my hair was that, a sacrifice. I have no children, and yet I can barely make a cup of coffee and put mascara on in time for church every week.

When I was thirteen, and my hair was in the middle of an identity crisis (curly?
straight? frizzy?), I got my first salon haircut. I don’t know what prompted my mom
to book an appointment for me this time, but we buckled up on a Thursday afternoon and drove to a dim, swanky-looking place where the stylist expertly twirled me around on her chrome-and-leather chair. She snipped. She rubbed a foamy mousse into my wet hair, admonishing me all the while about the importance of using expensive shampoo. She blow-dried my hair, and finally, spun me around to face my mother. I felt invincible, untouchable. On the drive home, my mom promised she would help me blow-dry my hair straight, so it could look like that every day.

It was my last salon haircut.

I’m not sure why, exactly, or if it was ever even discussed. But for the next six years, Mom would corral me when she felt my curls needed taming, and I’d sit on a step stool in the kitchen while she combed and cut my hair herself. For a couple dark years in high school, I cried after every hair cut. It had nothing to do with her scissors or her skill; but for a girl who couldn’t cry at any of the appropriate times, a miniscule change in hair length was enough to crack the cistern. I sobbed after every haircut, and miraculously, my mother never said a word about it. Just two months later, she’d patiently get out her scissors and the step stool and repeat the process again.

The relationship between woman and hairstylist is as famed as the relationship between man and bartender. There’s just enough familiarity to loosen the gates and just enough remove to keep any and all confessions at a comfortable, safe distance. At the salon, you can talk about the rain or you can talk about a rebellious child–and no matter what you say, at the end you can leave it all in the chair and face the world again: washed, dried, and hairsprayed.

But there is no anonymity or remove with my hairstylist; there has never been. My mother has overseen the trimming and general creative direction of my hair since birth. She tells me how she likes it (swept back, with lots of volume); she tells me when I (desperately) need a trim; she tells me please don’t dye your hair. And during the haircut, she tells me everything else. We are friends and always have been. We trade stories on the phone almost every day. Somehow, we never run out something to talk about. Friends of this caliber are rare. A friend of this caliber who also happens to be my mother is a treasure.

The last time she cut my hair was two days before my wedding. We talked about ordinary things: people we know, wedding plans, dinner that night. But she told me a story I had never heard before: the story of my first spoken sentence. Apparently it was a full sentence, complete with an adjective and verb. She was ecstatically proud. My first sentence made it to the Christmas newsletter that year. As she casually told me this story, I felt how proud she was of me, twenty-two years later.  I thought about the awesome emotional weight of motherhood, of  how dizzying and exhilarating and full it must feel to have your child do you proud. How crushing and heart-rending it must feel to be disappointed.

In my twenty-three years, I have done both. Through it all, my mom has remained just who she’s always been, my closest friend. Her haircuts are always free. She gives her time, and I sweep up my hair after. Although I did not always thank her well in high school, I thank her now. For her time. For friendship. For listening ear. I don’t ever want to change hairstylists, Mama. May we always live close enough for the 6-week haircut.

Holding him.

We threw a huge Christmas party on Saturday night.  Twinkly lights, bumpin’ music, gallons of gin fizz punch.  Almost every part of my life—and my roommates’ lives—was represented in the bright people who streamed through our doors in their Christmas fanciest.  I was surrounded by friends; my boyfriend won my heart a hundred times over all weekend; the party was a smash.

And yet, the very happiest moment of the whole shiny shebang for me was holding my friends’ six week old baby, Maverick.  After Friday morning, this felt righter than anything.

I stood on the porch in a black sequin dress and four inch heels, cradling a baby in my arms like there weren’t a roomful of sweaty, sparkly people dancing to Ke$ha behind me. I cradled him like he was mine. I could feel his parents watching me hold him. I could feel my boyfriend watching me hold him. But then we locked eyes, Maverick and me, and everything else was background.  The porch twinkle lights caught Maverick’s gaze. He turned his face up to the glow, folding and unfolding his tiny fingers in the absentminded way of new babies. I was transfixed. Immensely thankful. I felt immensely thankful to be holding him, then.

I’ve seen many, many words on the internet about the tragedy in Newtown since Friday. The shock and horror have rung so deeply through my soul that I haven’t had any words—and to be truthful—I have felt wild anger at the sheer inadequacy or flippancy of the words I have seen. I know we are all trying to do our best. I know we are all trying to process, if such a thing is possible.

I can’t say anything. There is nothing to say.

I recognize that the razor-sharp rage rising when I saw meaningless, meaningless tweets from brands and bloggers over the weekend (“Oooooh! Holiday nightcap recipe on the blog!”  “Ugh, so glad it’s finally Friday.” Etc etc etc.) was irrational. I recognize that the entire world cannot halt, even if it feels it should. Life is for the living, they say. It is. There is no way around it. It demands to be lived. No matter how many tears we (I) cried on Friday, I still had to go home, muddle through dinner, grocery shop, bake appetizers for my Christmas party, lock my doors, brush my teeth, wash my face.  You did too.

When I opened my eyes at seven am on Saturday morning, my very first thought was for the mothers of Newtown. When I opened them again twenty minutes later, my very first move was for my phone, to read through the latest updates. Answers, answers, answers, there aren’t any. I will admit—going forward with the Christmas party felt sad and wrong.  Maybe if it were just me, I would have cancelled.  But canceling a party that had been planned almost since last Christmas felt wrong, too.

So we lived on because life says we must. Giggled when a country Christmas tree farmer tried to steal a kiss from me in exchange for a wee bunch of mistletoe. Ooohhed when the mantel was lit for the first time. Stomped around in heels line dance style when someone DJed The Proclaimers. In the midst of all this, Allie and Tyler showed up to the party with their new son, Maverick, decked out in a chambray button-up.  Some time later, I abandoned my party host duties and, finally, I danced.  I looked over to see Allie and Tyler dancing too, grooving with their baby in her arms to some stupid, meaningless, dancy Chris Brown song. If I hadn’t already been smiling, I would have cried at the sight of that brave, cool little family.

There is a place for the trivial, the normal, the happy humdrum of daily life—even in great sadness.  There is a place for Chris Brown songs and babies in chambray and bittersweet dancing.

So I broke my silence last night with a tweet about Chinese takeout with Jivan. Tiny. Trivial. But I hope that somehow, maybe, you saw what I didn’t say: that on a rainy Sunday night after one of the saddest weekend’s in our nation’s recent history, what I finally found words for was love. 

Ships in the Night

I’ve long loved this phrase, the picture of two silent ships passing in the night, blinking at each other in the dark. I thought about it this morning when I walked silently into our kitchen, bleary-eyed, and passed my roommate. Kacie and I do this almost every morning, passing each other quietly on our way to coffee and the fridge and the stove. The ritual is usually wordless, but there’s a peaceful understanding running between us, an agreement that mornings are too raw to be broken with pleasantries.

Sometimes, we say good morning or wish each other a good day. That’s usually it and it is enough.

I won’t have these quiet crossings for much longer. Kacie is getting married and moving out in just a few weeks—and while I couldn’t be more delighted, I also couldn’t be more sad.

It is humbling and a little scary to admit we need people. After almost a year of living alone in a city where I had hardly any friends, I convinced myself that I was tough enough to go it alone. So when I moved to Greenville, I felt pretty unenthusiastic about settling into life with roommates again. It’s okay if these people don’t become my best friends, I told myself. They can just be roommates.

When Kacie gets married, it will be three days shy of a year together in Greenville. It’s been a year where God gently knocked down the fortifications I built around my heart, a year where I stepped out bravely and fell into a sweet surprise of a friendship.  Community is one of those dreadful Christian words that we all toss around, but rarely prioritize. We think about community as Bible study groups or Sunday morning hellos.  It is so much deeper and meatier and harder than that.

I know, because this year I found it. Or, rather, God gave it to me—but it took some willingness and work on my part. I learned to say yes to invitations and to extend invitations myself, even uncertainly. It took money (bacon and coffee beans for brunches don’t grow on trees).  Connecting required time, real time, and with time, slippery, trembling vulnerability. We’ve seen the worst and the best of each other this year. It’s there that true friendships formed.

As September turns into October (it is a golden slip of a pirouette; fall is surely a ballerina) and I turn into my second year in Greenville, my relationship to community is changing. I dream of it growing deeper, wider, more intentional. I wanna start conversations that change us, conversations that get to the heart of things and point us right back to Jesus. I’d like to laugh even more than we did this year, if such a thing is possible. I say all this here because words on paper (pixels on pixels?) spur me to make good.

Almost a year ago, Kacie, my unlikely friend, invited me to brunch with a lot of strangers. On the way back home, we bought a $3 vintage chair and a $3 vintage ice cream scoop—and this first venture of friendship gave me hope for a new life in a city I wasn’t sure about. Now, we can glance at each other from across the room and have those eye conversations that all close female friends master.  In six weeks, Walker will be the one who gets to bump into Kacie in the morning and I will be the one to make two less cups of coffee at 1415.

November is coming fast, and it will bring change the way all year-marks bring change: some good, some sad, all necessary. The wind will blow, and the brown leaves will dance on the streets, and we’ll all settle into a season of new gratitude. Mine will start with a thank you to Kacie, for teaching me that community is something worth stepping out for.

Double fire.

“Give me a new mouth and I’ll be / a guardian against forgetfulness. ” — Stephen Dunn

If life is cyclical,

if we are always orbiting around and around our former selves,

then the sometimes-sharp transition from summer to fall is when the orbital pull is strongest. Memory is a moon, and I am the tide, and in racing forward to the shore, I come so close to last year’s Kathryn retreating, I can see what she’s thinking/feeling/seeing/hearing.

Oh, September with your new notebooks and shiny apples and cardigan dreams, there is a dark bronze undercurrent running through you. I feel its electromagnetic tug, pulling me to old poems and pennyloafers from another life of mine.

I am a writer, but I have never been able to articulate the intensity of this awareness I wear in the fall. Do other people feel it? Surely I cannot be the only one who walks down a street with a perfectly glorious September sky overhead, crisp in all its blueness, feeling that I’m passing the shadow of the girl I was at this time last year or other years.

This is no plea to go backwards. My life so far is full of both sad and sweet, and to walk backwards would be to trod on those times, tinkle of old glass under my feet.  I don’t know what this is, other than a mile marker kind of observation:

everything changes and so do I.

Islands.

I left work with a long to-do list, and he did too.

I cooked dinner for him; he shot photos for one of my projects. What stands out to me about this back-and-forth is that it is easy. There is joy in sharing, a joy that we first learn in kindergarten, but morphs into a different joy entirely when what we are sharing is ourselves. In this age of the over-share, it still feels risky to open my clenched hand and let an idea see the light. Let someone else see the idea.

Maybe this risk comes sharper to those of us who are shy, who fear the graceless fizzle of failure.

Jivan’s apartment is tucked in the streetside corner of a 1940s building that stands above one of the busiest intersections in downtown Greenville. His white walls are defined by an unusually lucky number of tall windows;  in the morning, the place is aglow with early sunlight, and at night, the stop and go of traffic comes in flashes. Sometimes when I’m there, I hear bits of car radio floating by, beats throbbing as cars pause at the red light. And no matter the time of day, there is always the faint rush of cars going by, a big city energy that feels rare for my baby city of Greenville.

I stood in bare feet, holding a beer in one hand and an unshaded lamp in the other–casting light and shadows on the still life he was photographing. Through the windows, I watched tail lights bob and swim into a dark blur of the road I couldn’t see. We weren’t talking to each other, quietly absorbed in our own work. His little apartment was a rock in the middle of a river, the rush of going and coming all around us. I felt isolated, the way you feel isolated on a balcony overlooking a busy street.  We were in the middle of things, but not; alone, but not; the world ours, but not quite.

It felt a little like love.