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Monthly Archives: March 2013

City of Hunched Shoulders

Screen Shot 2013-03-23 at 10.02.16 AMThe first week of spring here in Chicago has been a mixture of radiant sunshine and sub freezing temperatures. I have been inwardly savoring the sunshine while clutching my pockets and burying my head in my coat.

On Tuesday, I made several trips along Lakeshore Drive — to the Harold Washington Public Library downtown, back to Evanston, back to the South side. I watched the flicker of sunlight across skyscrapers, its winking, springlike energy, meanwhile, clutching the wheel against a strong wind that persisted in nudging my car toward the concrete median…

One usually thinks of Chicago as a stark, wintry city, less green than silver and inclined to make clumsy leaps from winter to summer. The cold alone compromises a person’s ability to stand tall, take everything in, and smell the flowers. It seems that our shared tendency to hunch over, leaning into the wind with gloved, ear-plugged persistence, could easily be a snapshot of that stubborn, ambitious, individualistic American way. Our cultural tendency to forge ahead, in a manner both self-absorbed and disconnected, is not unlike the crowds of Chicagoans hurrying around in their sleeping bag sized coats.

On my short walk to the library to pick up some librettos, I managed to appreciate the combination of frigid air and bright sun. They are an invigorating pair — more Chicagoan in spirit than clichéd harbingers of spring, like budding flowers or soothing rain. I found myself in a sea of hurried, hunched over pedestrians, moving with the mute, tense persistence I would imagine of flower buds pushing through soil. The clutter of the city had a collective grace to it — a no-frills forward thrust containing the energy and buzz of spring. It reminds me of a poem by Galway Kinnell, “Saint Francis And The Sow,” in a free-association kind of way:

“The bud
stands for all things,
even for those things that don’t flower…”

because

“everything flowers, from within, of self-blessing;
though sometimes it is necessary
to reteach a thing its loveliness…”

This poem describes St Francis stroking the wrinkly forehead of a pig, illustrating the idea that everything possesses its own inherent beauty and is worthy of self-love.  The pig takes in this unsolicited blessing by more fully embodying itself, “remembering all down her thick length” the “loveliness of a sow.”

I’d also like to imagine that our city of hunched over, hurried, shivering people is a city in bloom, flowering from within. Spring is present in the quick succession of heavy brass doors, elevator dings, and marble floors, followed by the drone of a computer monitor on the eighth floor of the library, humming over the heavy silence of wooden tables and hunched over readers. Outside, spring is the play of light on windshields, the cacophony of brakes sounding out randomly with car horns, whistles, and screeching subway wheels, all reminders of life stirring.

Here is the poem in its entirety.

[Photo: “When He Comes Ridin’ Into Your Town,” Chicago Man’s photostream]

Why Poets Make The Best Cooks

alphabet soup kids pastaIn January, I set what I considered a very realistic goal of one blog post per week. I have been slacking in recent weeks, due to added work…

Like many, I picked the blog format for its aspect of community that encourages lots of active writing and reading, an exchange of ideas, a way for me to overcome the impulse to constantly revise and post something regularly. It’s also cool (and a little scary) that the blog format allows so much transparency about the writing process, allowing you to see your and others’ thought process unfold over time.

What I read about “how to blog” has to do with frequent posts of limited length, emphasizing the social nature of blogging. I know that all writing is a social endeavor. In teaching, the social aspect of publishing, reading, and peer editing is seen as highly effective way to motivate students. But if writing in the traditional sense is inherently social, the blogosphere is like a cocktail party full of highly caffeinated people. When I look at people’s “blogrolls” I think, wow, this is incredible! And my enthusiasm is tempered by a desire to shut off my computer and pluck an actual book off the shelf.

One such book is called Not For Bread Alone: Writers on Food, Wine, and the Art of Eating. I typically have lukewarm feelings at best toward “food writing.” Excuse me for sounding elitist, but it often seems like cheat writing. (Which may seem ironic, considering the culinary and literary emphasis of this blog, but to me they occupy separate camps.) Or at least I personally want to sink my teeth into something beautiful and cathartic if I’m going to read a book. Likewise, I’d rather experience food firsthand 🙂

In this book, Joyce Carol Oates writes a provocative and impressively unsentimental food essay called “Food Mysteries” in which she articulates food impressions and memories that point to the kind of sly, penetrating truths at the heart of her short stories and novels. One such “food mystery” is that

“For the writer, the writing offered to other people is a kind of food. Thus the writer’s peculiar vulnerability, risking rebuff, misunderstanding. What nourishment! some may exclaim. What garbage! others may exclaim.

Which is why, for sheer delight, writers turn to real food. Poets make the best cooks. Prose writers, the most appreciate friends of poets.”

Even for the half-hearted, trepid writer in me, real food has indeed been a source of sheer delight in these past few weeks of procrastination. In my preoccupation with other work, I’ve happily neglected writing to turn out herb baked eggs, sautéed kale flavored with mushrooms, onions, and cranberries, mini pies, a large, quickly consumed casserole dish of homemade mac and cheese…

However, I am resolutely abandoning my excuses, putting a hold on popping things out of the oven to recommit to that other kind of nourishment, the self-discovery and clarity of mind that comes from writing. I am still trying to figure out what I am writing about exactly, how to integrate writing into my life, whether it is worth doing… you get the idea.

In challenging myself to answer these questions, I’ve come to the conclusion that “doing what you love” is an overused, misunderstood phrase. Do I love cooking? Yes, given the amount of time I can spend making mini pies or chopping vegetables. Do I love writing? No. I wouldn’t call it love. But I feel compelled to do it, and this tells me that I need to stick with it. It’s a mysterious thing, figuring out what we want, questioning ourselves and managing our time accordingly. In “Food Mysteries,” Joyce Carol Oates writes that

“Appetite is a kind of passion… Borne along irresistibly by the momentum of both, we never question our destination, still less its mysterious source. Nor should we.”

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