Saturday, January 21, 2012

A Certain Self Possession

On the topic of writing and not being able to write, Ernest Hemingway wrote, "Write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know."

Or something like that. I can't place my hands on my copy of A Moveable Feast, which to this day remains a favorite of mine. Never mind the tawdry internecine battles over its posthumous publication, it should be read if only for Hemingway's description of hunger and of the sausage he ate in the brasserie after unexpectedly receiving money for selling a story.

One true sentence.

     **The sunrise Thursday morning was gloriously brilliant.

     **At night, I fall asleep with the radiant heat of a corn bag paving the way.

     **Last night, I talked with one of the most charmingly self-possessed young women I have ever met.

That last one I can go with.

We had a (vastly) younger couple over last night. By young, I mean in my son Ben's age range: mid-20s. I have known Doug since high school, as he and Ben were friends and teammates. Danielle is his fiancee; I had heard about her from Doug, but not yet met her.

The stop at our house was supposed to be the briefest of way stations for Doug and Danielle's evening. He was stopping by to meet and talk with Warren about the Symphony; she, an aspiring rare book appraiser, was coming by to look at a book in Warren's library. (It wasn't rare; no Antiques Roadshow moment here, folks.)

In arranging the evening, Doug and I had estimated perhaps a half hour. They were off to dinner and a night of board games with friends afterwards, so I made no plans for drinks, for appetizers, for anything.

Well, it didn't turn out that way. The conversation started quickly and took on a life of its own, as good conversations will. The Civil War, children's literature, the Symphony, downtown Cincinnati, Japan, Frank Lloyd Wright, music, vellum, Christmas trees, the First Folio, Archimedes, and the Gutenberg Bible, to name a few, were all part of the evening. It was as wide ranging a conversation as we have had with any of our closest friends.

It was only with reluctance (and guilt that we had gone on so long and I hadn't set out any food) that I finally felt compelled to say, "We've kept you from your friends and your plans!" Shortly after that, Doug and Danielle drove off in the light snow, while Warren and I turned to making our now very late supper.

This morning I woke with the evening still on my mind. It has been a long time (and not something we often do as a couple) since we had spent an evening talking with such young adults in such a free floating way. I found myself hoping they did not leave last night saying, "Thank God, I thought we were never going to get away from there."

And Danielle made an impression on me. She is bright and witty and down to earth all at the same time, with a good, hearty laugh, a combination I like in anyone, but especially in young women. And she was stylish and put together in a graceful, subtle way that I have never achieved, and certainly could not have even begun to attempt when I was her age.

I commented on that last fact this morning.

"Well, she probably puts a little more time into it than you do, " Warren mused.

Well, yes. Isn't that the whole point of looking put together: putting a little more time into it? And haven't I gotten to the point where I can pick and choose where to put the time I have? My point was more that some women, of any age, possess that innate sense of being put together and I do not.

But that's not what this post is about. It's not about my lack of style, or what I was or wasn't at age 27 or am or am not at age 55. And that's not what last night was about. Last night was about the talk and the topics.  Last night was about shouts of laughter and murmurs of agreement. Last night was about exploring architecture and music and medieval manuscripts. And last night was about one of most charmingly self-possessed young women I have ever met.

One true sentence.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Wonder Bread

It is the simplest of processes.

Stir yeast and water together, add some flour. Stir some more to wake the gluten. Add some salt, add some more flour. Knead vigorously.

Let it rise.

I am at the "let it rise" stage right now. We are - well, we will be when Elizabeth gets back here and kicks it into gear - eating a Pakistani inspired meal tonight. (For the new year, Elizabeth and Warren have started cooking ethnic meals on the Saturdays she is here. Tonight is Pakistani.)

I offered to make naan , a Middle East/subcontinent flatbread. I have never made naan before, but the recipe (courtesy of Dorie Greenspan and Julia Child) is so basic that I am trusting it to turn out.

By any measure, I have had a good day. Other than meeting a friend for coffee this morning, I have been home all day, tending to small things. I have sent or answered a few emails; I've read some of John Cheever's short stories. I've tied up some loose ends too small to be projects but too big to ignore.

And now I am waiting out the rising, experiencing yet again the wonder of bread. It never fails to catch me by surprise.

While I stirred the yeast/water/flour slurry today,  I found myself thinking of how many centuries we - women, humans - have been making bread. How many generations of us have kneaded it, watched it rise, baked it (over a fire, in an oven, in the big city, in the desert) and then broken it?

When I lose myself in baking, the cares of my world drop away. Baking is a tonic for me, and baking bread is the strongest tonic of them all. Bread has its own rhythm, its own schedule, its own ways - you come to bread and enter its universe when you bake.

Out of flour, salt, water, and yeast, this miracle.

Wonder bread.

Postscript: Because of the unpredictability of the American teenager, the day grew later and the dough rose higher without Elizabeth reappearing. Finally, Warren and I looked at each other, scrapped the Pakistani meal, and headed to the grocery for the staples we needed. Once back home, I announced I was making the naan all the same, and I proceeded to shape and bake while Warren prepared a pasta dish. Elizabeth burst through the door as the first of it was going into the oven. Some twenty minutes later, we sat down to a meal of pasta, grilled vegetables, and the naan. The naan was an unqualified success. Not quite what any of us had in mind when the day started, but wonderful all the same.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Of Dragons' Tails and Corn Bags

We saw in the New Year in the best way possible: sitting outside around a fire with our close friends Margo and Gerald. By the time 2011 was down to its last hour, the night sky had cleared and the stars had grown bright. Gerald came back from taking the dog in and announced that the Big Dipper was prominent in the northeast; I joined him in the yard and picked out Orion in the south.

When the New Year came, we all kissed our spouses. There were fireworks on the horizon in several directions. Warren and Gerald poked the fire until we could safely leave it to burn out. We said our goodnights, exchanged hugs and best wishes, and then my dear husband and I drove home in 2012, smelling of wood smoke and friendship.

The next day, I read a line in an old New Yorker that the "happiest civilizations had existed in the age of Homer, when the starry sky was the map of all possible paths." Certainly it seemed that way the night before as we watched the stars wheel by.

I have been reading the Byron Blakely biography of the writer, John Cheever. It is not the first biography of Cheever I have ever read, but it is the best. It presents an intricately detailed and ultimately sympathetic portrait of Cheever, who was a very complex individual on his best days. That alone is an achievement. But what Blakely does particularly well is make the reader see the beauty and structure of Cheever's prose. It is akin to Blakely placing a hummingbird in your hands for the briefest of seconds and then telling you to release it to the garden.

One such hummingbird is this excerpt from Cheever's essay, "A Miscellany of Characters That Will Not Appear." Cheever is describing the ascent and descent of an imaginary popular writer and criticizes the final works thusly:

You might say that he had lost the gift of evoking the perfumes of life: sea water, the smoke of burning hemlock, and the breasts of women. He had damaged, you might say, the ear's innermost chamber, where we hear the heavy noise of the dragon's tail moving over the dead leaves.

I have read those two sentences over and over for the last few days. I read them and smell the ocean. I read them and recall the smoke of New Year's Eve. I read them and hear the dragon's tail moving over the dead leaves.

I have written very little in the last few months. Chalk it up to any number of reasons: the press of life, family issues, Warren's and my schedules, niggling little medical problems that have put me in medical offices, the needs and demands of others, a lingering and persistent depression threaded through the holiday season. I pick up a pen to write, then set it aside. My inner ear is not damaged, but I am not listening well. I am mistaking the rumble of the weekly garbage truck for the heavy noise of the dragon's tail.

As I often do when in this place, I am scaling back everywhere I can, cutting the daily demands down to the smallest size possible. I am focusing on the small moments: writing letters to close friends, cooking savory meals, paying attention to the intense blue of the daytime sky when I am outside. My smallest moment occurs each evening when I warm a corn bag in the microwave and then read with it on my lap. (Corn bags, for the uninitiated, are large pieces of terry cloth (bigger than a washcloth, smaller than a dishtowel) sewed first to make a sack, partially filled with dried field corn, and then sewn shut.) A warmed corn bag has the weight of a fat puppy and the smell of a corncrib on a hot day. It radiates heat and comfort far beyond the physical. When bedtime draws close, we warm up several such bags and throw them under the bedclothes to take off the chill. I often drift off to sleep with the smell of harvest time lacing the air.

2012 holds great promise, I hope and believe. For now, though, it is just beyond the tip of my pen. For now I can only trust that I am building up a store of ideas and impressions and sentences. Somewhere there is sea water. Somewhere there is the sound of the heavy dragon's tail moving over dead leaves. Somewhere I will return to writing.