Life Among the Perishing

I was able to share my birthday with an amazing group of women this year. This is an amended version of some words I shared with them.

Photos by  Welcome Here Birth

Photos by Welcome Here Birth

The adjectives used to describe me throughout my life have been plenty. I’ve been told I’m stubborn. Witty. Funny. Friendly. Welcoming. But I’ve never, in all of my life, been described as happy. No one has ever (to the best of my knowledge or in my presence) said, “she’s such a happy person.”

It’s a fair deletion because the truth is, as long as I can remember, I have tilted towards melancholy. When I was in fourth grade, I discovered Where the Red Fern Grows and week after week, during library time, I could be found huddled in the back corner, buried in the stacks, wiping away the tears as I read about two dying dogs and the sacred red fern that grows between their graves. And when I turned twelve and my mother asked what I wanted for my birthday, I asked for a book that would make me cry, so she bought me the book that had made her cry when she was my age; Jane Eyre – a tragic tale in no uncertain terms.

My obsession with sadness has been life long, I think. I don't often search for happiness, and I have certainly never come by it naturally. I’ve always been more comfortable with sad things, I think, always just a tiny bit burdened by the weight of the world – a weight that doesn’t seem to be easing with time. Life has always seemed – well - hard. Barbara Brown Taylor refers in her book, An Altar in the World, to “the wilderness gene” – the part of us that makes us strong and resourceful, but also makes us realize how perishable we are. It is our perishability that I have always identified with.  And while people often find this sad, I have found myself thankful for this ability to identify and name the perishable. This capacity has been a gift in my life and the older I get, the more I realize that being comfortable with my own perishing has made me highly attuned to the perishability of others. We are such fragile beings, after all, and I’m so grateful to have developed the eyes to recognize, sometimes in an instant, the fragility of another soul.

As I have moved through the world, with a sense of my own perishing and a developing ability to see it in others, I have come to realize that the only way we get through this life is by taking our turns in the lifeboat. We’ve all been there: in desperate need of saving, and suddenly, there they are – the rescuers – rowing the boat and throwing the buoys of hope over the side, giving us something to cling to when the riptides of life were pulling us under, something that we couldn’t find all on our own. And then, not long after our rescue, we find it is our turn to row, to gather hope for someone who - God help them – is looking even more desperate than we were just a few nautical miles ago. 

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I’ve thought a lot recently about the people who have thrown out the buoys for me in my perishing moments. They have made me laugh and made me cry. They have shared their families, their children, and their pets. They have taught me to be creative and reminded me that it is my responsibility to do so. At times they have fought with me, exposing things about myself that I didn’t even know where there. They have done physically hard and gross things, caring for me in ways that I didn’t ever expect I would need, and would have been too embarrassed or proud to ask for had I known what they might be in for. These people have shared their stories and trusted me to hold them in confidence, and they have sat around tables littered with wine or coffee or crumpled up Kleenex and listened to mine, returning the favour that trust demands. They have told me that in this day and age, when it feels like hate and hurt are chipping away at the world and at the very soul of humanity, that it is okay to be a little angry some of the time. And then they have gently reminded me that, even now, after all that chipping and hurting, it’s probably going to be okay.

These moments, in their complexity and beauty and even in their horror, are our combined efforts of rescue. These are the moments that make me happiest, and that make this business of aging a little less terrifying. In these moments of gathering, you realize, suddenly, that you're not alone in all of this after all. This crew of weather-beaten rescuers will take their turn at the oars, as you perhaps did for them once. These are the moments that scratch the best before dates off our lives and remind us that no, really, we are best after. 

After we have shared what we have abundantly and without worry of enoughness.

After we have fought one another intensely, saying the hard and horrible and (often) true things.

After we have gathered hope where there seems to be no hope – the marriage revived from the ashes, the baby that finally came, the injury that healed against the odds. All the things we dared not hope for, dared not believe.

After we have clutched another’s story safely in both our hands and tucked it into our hearts for safekeeping, allowing it to dwell there, so fully alive that we find ourselves welling up with tears at a stoplight, wishing we could turn back time and undo what the world has done.  

After all of this hard and beautiful work, we are always, always better.

I’m not a conventionally happy person, I know. I have always struggled to find the divine around me. But when perishing people come together, I think that this must be where God hangs out, as we cry and console and dream and laugh and row the life boats together and for each other. I want to spend my life stringing those boats together, tossing our hard stuff back and forth and allowing one another to carry it for awhile. Because when we bring the perishing together, it will probably be the most beautiful thing we could imagine.  And for me, that will always be where real happiness is found.

The Cake of the (half) Century

When we asked my parents, sometime around year 48 of their marriage, what they wanted for their 50th anniversary, they announced they wanted a sit-down, roast beef dinner for 140 of their closest friends and family. There were other requests too. At one point, I believe there were hopes for three (THREE!!) numbers from Fiddler on the roof, performed by my now 42-year-old brother who played Tevia in high school, a lifetime ago. (We managed to whittle it down to If I Were a Rich Man because let’s face it – as much as one loves their parents, I think we can all agree that three songs from Fiddler on the Roof is about 2.5 songs too many.)  We held a firm line on the number of songs from hit Broadway musicals (circa 1964), but a roast beef dinner with all the trimmings – a dinner we could do.

What I’m pretty sure we don’t understand growing up, but possibly come to understand acutely as adults, is just what a massive accomplishment fifty years of marriage is. Half a century of love, marinated in patience and impatience, frustration and forgiveness, full of hope and heartache. The dedication it takes to get to fifty years must be enormous. I wouldn’t know, of course – I broke up with someone once because I couldn’t make him stop wearing cargo shorts, so I’m not a great advertisement for devotion (But also, I really hate cargo shorts).

The other thing we don’t understand is that when one is planning a 50th anniversary party, one will literally only ever talk about the 50th anniversary party. Like, all. the. time. The closer it came, the more the words, “my parents’ 50th anniversary” came out of my mouth. And the more those words came out of my mouth, the more remarkable they seemed. Fifty. Years.

Fifty years, it turns out, doesn’t happen instantly. There’s not a magic wand that creates a successful, fifty-year marriage. Fifty years, I think, happens moment-by-moment, hour-by-hour, day-by-day until, one day, you open your eyes and there you are. The moments and the hours and the days stack up, one on top of the other, and suddenly – Fifty. Annie Dillard once wrote “how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing.” And what growing up eventually teaches us is that spending days well isn’t always easy. It isn’t even mostly easy.  It requires an uninterrupted assessment of our choices, deliberations big and small. Spending days well requires intention, commitment and not just a little bit of faith.  For fifty years, you do this work, and you hopefully teach your family to do the same. For fifty years, sometimes cautiously, sometimes spontaneously, you choose one thing over another and hopefully those choices are mostly good over bad. Hopefully, over time, the bar graph of a lifetime indicates that those years, on average, tilted upwards and to the right. That’s how you build fifty years.

The older I get, the more I love having my parents all to myself. It’s rare in a big family to have such moments, so I make sure to seize them when they arise. And so, shortly after I arrived in town for my parents’ anniversary, I took them out for breakfast. Over eggs Benedict, my mother casually mentioned that maybe, if I have time, when we get home, I can help dad get the cake out of the freezer.

The cake.

THE cake.

Was (and now is again) in my parents’ deep freeze.

Fifty years ago, Lady J, as I often like to call her, packed up her wedding cake into a cardboard box and put it in the bottom of the freezer, where it stayed until their 25th anniversary, when we pulled it out to show off at a far less elaborate celebration. Back in it went and ten years ago, when the freezer died and my mom was tempted to throw it out, her best friend said, “You’ve had it for 40 years – why not save it for just 10 more?” So back in it went, to its new and improved sub-zero home. And now, here we were, eating eggs, drinking coffee, and wondering if it would still be in tact when we once again pulled out the box.  

I’m not embarrassed to admit I was a little giddy with anticipation at the possibility and I eagerly dove into the freezer as soon as we got home, setting frozen blocks of ground beef and bags of peas aside to get to the bottom. To both my bewilderment and my delight, the cake was still gorgeous (if completely inedible and possibly riddled with some sort of lethal bacteria) fifty years later. It is a classic fruitcake, typical of wedding cakes in 1967, made by my grandmother 50 years ago. I am of the firm opinion that we should donate said cake to science, because after surviving 50 years in the bowels of a deep freeze, it now has the properties required to either kill us all or cure cancer.  Either way, someone with a PhD should really take a good look.  

We put the cake on display at the anniversary, along with my mom’s wedding dress, her “weird” candelabra (her words, not mine) and their photo album. The bottom layer, now hollow, required a little structural reinforcement to hold the brick of fruitcake that balanced on top. My dad, retired draftsman and un-retired experimentalist/futzing-about-er, was happy to oblige, with a cardboard truss system that did the trick. The ruffled, flowery edges were chipped in places, the scars of its long, cold life. These minor flaws were, of course, obvious to no one, since its astonishing survival was the real story anyways. And it stood, proud and beautiful that evening, evidence of just how strong and lovely Fifty can be. And after all, I’m assuming that cake survived its 50 years the same way most of us probably will – slightly chipped, still beautiful, with a little extra support needed to keep us from toppling over altogether.  

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My Farm-Grown Happiness Nugget

I’ve loved cooking for as long as I can remember, and I’ve loved eating since long before that. I'd probably be over-selling my 8-year-old self if I told you it wasn't just about the food back then. But somewhere mid-stream, it also became about so much more - about not just tasting food, but tasting life and about nourishing my soul as much as my body. It has become about welcome, about beauty, and about the joy of something I created being enjoyed by others and about providing a sense of home for people who need it or want it.

It’s called hospitality, I suppose, and if I have it, I come by it honestly. I grew up in a home that had it in spades, with parents who showed me with remarkable consistency that a door should always be opened - to friends and family, but also to the frightened and alone - and that no matter how little we had, there was always enough to share. Some of my fondest and earliest memories took place around the table at family dinners, or eating late night gingersnaps with grandma. They took place in farm kitchens in the small town where my dad's family lived, adults lingering around a half cleared table, a giant wheel of cheese slowly shrinking under the glide of a hand held cheese slicer.   The coffee pot was always on, the tv was always off, and children wandered in and out, wild with freedom, from their mucky, unsupervised adventures in the great outdoors. 

Even as a little girl, I knew this was the dream – a huge farm kitchen, food plucked from the garden, tables lined up end to end with countless aunts, uncles, and cousins seated on folding chairs and benches around them. The space conformed to the size of the group and was never constrained by it. This is a dream that I am not embarrassed to say I have dedicated more than a little time to replicating in my itty-bitty city-dwelling life. I’ll happily squeeze 10 people in for a sit down dinner in this dumpy little apartment, even if you have to bring your own chair.

The thing is, there’s just a glowing nugget of happiness in my soul when I can gather people around a table and feed them. I’m certainly never ashamed to clap with delight once everyone is seated.  So when I say I’m starting Trade Me Catering because I want to give that same feeling to people, I’m not messing around. Not even a little. I want people to have their own happiness nugget, to applaud with glee because these people are, for this moment, gathered at their tables to talk about their beautiful moments and their horrible embarrassments and the stupidest reason they ever broke up with someone. I want everyone to feel – even for a few hours – that magical feeling the Danish call hygge – friends, family, togetherness, home. And I want everyone to know what I know - that the heart and the home both have potential to be infinitely malleable if we’ll crack the door open a little bit. There’s room for one more, trust me. Pull up a chair. Tuck in.