I’m trying to figure out why a strange sort of sadness washes over me while I stand at the kitchen counter, washing brussel sprouts, peeling carrots, trimming the ends of celery stalks.
These days, darkness falls early. So much of the day spent in darkness. But it is not simply the darkness that creates this sense that I have lost something that I don’t understand. This growing unease as the sink fills with the bitter ends of things.
At night, in dreams, frustration: I am standing on line in the grocery store and the scale breaks down as I approach. I am running at the track by the stadium and I fall, unable to rise. I am driving downtown and a hole in the earth opens up – traffic stops. Always, something is holding me back. I am poised, but consistently thwarted.
My friend K. sends me a message about the man she said she would not think about until January. The one she fell in love with before she knew she would leave her husband. They’ve spent an evening together – a lovely one – and I ask, “so what now?” And she says, “We are taking it slow, slow.”
I tell her yes, of course, you must. But the truth is that I have never understood how this is possible – to go slowly in that early blush of love. How is it that you keep from trying to swallow this person whole? To devour him where he stands?
Patience – I recognize – is not one of my virtues.
I can remember past winter afternoons, at the counter, preparing a meal, when this same sense of sadness has crept in. Sometimes, it would take the shape of nostalgia and I would call my aunt to ask for a recipe of my childhood. In this way, I learned to make chicken stewed with tomatoes and onions (simmered so slowly and for so long that the meat falls from the bone); caldo verde (at table, add a splash of red wine); salt cod (soak it overnight and change the water at least twice, then simmer gently in milk). And attempting to replicate these dishes would for a time, give me focus, and keep the sadness at bay.
But tonight, I don’t make the phone call. I plod ahead on my own. There is nothing of my childhood in tonight’s meal: curried carrot soup, roasted brussel sprouts, celery stalks braised in butter and white wine.
The poet Elizabeth Bishop met poet Robert Lowell at a dinner party one winter evening, and this meeting began a correspondence between the two that would span the thirty years until Lowell’s death in 1977.
I’m reading their letters slowly – painfully slowly amid the swirl and pull of other professional and personal obligations. I am struck by how conversational and chatty their tone – the early ones, at least. But also by their intimacy. How they offered each other up these glimpses into their lives.
In her second letter, Elizabeth begins to write about a review of another poet then interrupts herself – and when she comes back later, she explains that she had been called out to see the birthing of a calf. And she describes a bit of the scene for him: “…after several falls on its nose it was standing up and shaking its head & tail & trying to nurse.”
These days, it seems, we are all writing about our lives all the time. We offer up these glimpses through our status updates and our twitter feeds, but we are projecting those with a megaphone from a stage, it seems, to a noisy crowd.
But when Lowell writes this to Elizabeth, after his divorce is finalized:
“It’s funny at my age to have one’s life so much in and on one’s hands. All the rawness of learning, what I used to think should be done with by twenty-five. Sometimes nothing is so solid to me as writing. I suppose that’s what vocation means – at times a torment, a bad conscience, but all in all, purpose and direction, so I’m thankful, and call it good as Eliot would say.”
It is evident, I think, that this is a private conversation between two people who are beginning something of a journey together – of discovering each other, of discovering self.
Why is it, I wonder, that we do this? That we broadcast these stories of ourselves in our lives – that we create this projection of who we think we are, who we might want to be? What is it, then, that we expect, when we send bits of ourselves out into the world?
A sense, perhaps that we are not alone? That something in us is recognized, recognizable? That the darkness that surrounds so early in the day – that pauses the hand chopping carrots at the counter to stare wistfully out the kitchen window – is the same darkness that at times settles in on you, no matter the distance that separates. And perhaps the knowledge that the thread – invisible, fine, but strong – that connects us, one to the next, in ever enlarging patterns, will lead us back to the quiet, intimate things – if only we will pause long enough to allow them.