Mae West said, “To err is human, but it feels divine.” How right she was, to a certain extent.
It’s been quite a while since I did anything really bad, dammit. The errors I make these days are modest in scope, caused largely by unintended social klutziness: rushing forth in my enthusiasm to speak and depriving someone else of the spotlight; inflicting my will on others without thinking and then realizing how unpopular my unilateral decision was; or blithely assuming people are more comfortable socially than they are and making a blunder in judgment.
But when I was younger, and not even that much younger, my life was spinning off like a revved-up racecar without a driver. Back then, for years and even decades, I made colossal errors, life-changing ones, errors so big, they set me on a different course.
It did not feel “divine,” exactly, to err so dramatically, it felt stressful and strange, nightmarish even, as if I were going against the high standards I generally like to hold myself to, acting out of loneliness and hunger rather than generosity and thoughtfulness. However, these mistakes I made set off a chain of events that caused me to act decisively in order to stop making them. If I hadn’t made them, I wouldn’t be sitting here right now, I’m sure of that, so regret is useless.
If anything, making mistakes teaches you things you can’t learn any other way. Besides the usual residual rewards of a life fully lived, such as wisdom and hindsight and forgiveness of others and the knowledge of what an incredible asshole you’re actually capable of being, big mistakes teach you who your true friends are and who’s been judging you, sniping behind your back, and slitting their eyes at you all along. This is useful information, as any Shakespearean tragedy proves: naïve belief in the high opinion of others can be deadly. Mistakes make you humble, cure you of arrogant superiority. At least, they did me. And they made me appreciate the people who love me in a whole new way. I can’t take anything for granted anymore, not ever. To err is very human, I think.
I’m sitting in front of a hot fire on a zero-degree night in the White Mountains. It’s a tough world out there, beyond the walls of this farmhouse. Tonight, outside, the sky is dark and clear, mad with stars. The eaves are hung with icicles sharp as shards of glass. We saw a very thin coyote at the bottom of the field the other morning. He was trolling the edge of the field, for what food, I didn’t know. He didn’t bother coming up to root for fallen apples in the snow in the orchard, so maybe there weren’t any. Compared to the portly old velvet-furred pasha of a canine dozing at my feet, the coyote looked truly wild and on the verge of starvation. There’s no supermarket for him to go to.
In the woods, the dark, shaggy branches of the hemlocks are heaped in pillows of white snow. On our walks, we stop to look at the brooks, whose surfaces are iced over in ornate layers and hummocks. The snowy, frozen lake is bluish in the shade. The air has been so cold, so dry, that once we warm up from the hard exercise, I’m weirdly reminded of hot days in Arizona, of that desert air that scalds the skin with its parched aridity. The absolute lack of moisture makes our skin crackle. The hard packed beige-brown sand on the road over the ice also feels desert-like, as does the sunlight, which, although it lacks warmth, is intensely bright.
We come into the warm house after our walk with our skin flushed, our scarves frozen from our exhalations, noses dripping, blood pumping. We shed everything as fast as we can, gulp big glasses of cold well water, and then, within twenty minutes, we’re chilly again, and the layers gradually go back on.
When we went to the barn earlier to get more wood, we bundled up as if we were heading out into the Siberian steppe. Our boots creaked in the snow as we walked in the tire tracks across the yard to the driveway and across it to the barn. We had to go through the stable to the woodpile because the side entrance is buried by the towering pile of snow that slid from the roof last week, when it warmed up enough to melt it slightly. We shoe-skated over the ice on the floor to the nearly-depleted woodpile, loaded up and staggered back to the house with our armloads.
In here, in front of the fire, it’s warm and safe. Dingo’s on the window seat snoozing. Brendan’s making veal cutlets, dredging them in beaten egg, then bread crumbs, and then he’ll fry them in hot oil. Sweet potatoes are in the oven; peas are simmering in a pot.
It’s a Blue Plate Special night. This is always an occasion for contemplation and gratitude, especially in light of the flood of bad news that crowds into my sphere of attention, constantly, with no hope of improvement or change. Today’s haul was typical: the southern leg of the Keystone Pipeline is open for business as of today, thank to our President; the rare albino baby dolphin who was caught in Japan the other day in their latest mass haul has been shipped off to a life of captivity, and its mother has committed suicide; Chevron, who has dumped 18 billion gallons of toxic oil waste into the once-pristine river system of the Ecuadorean Amazon over the years, is suing an Ecuadorian man who claims the poisons caused the cancer that killed his father and wife; and so forth, on and on, day after day. It’s too much to believe, the scope of our environmental ruin. My own individual death feels totally insignificant to me now. What a strange species we are.
So we turn up the heat, put another log on the fire, and tuck into our plates of food. Everything feels hard-won, provisional, and fragile, and I love it all the more for that.
Sometimes my brain goes offline. It puts itself in Idle. This happens after periods of intense thought and writing and reading, but at other times, it happens for no apparent reason. I wake up stupider than usual, and I have a hard time making conversation, and I can’t write anything at all, and reading anything more challenging than a glossy magazine is an effort. So I sit in the bath with a glossy magazine and drool gently and stare into space and let my thoughts bump around like bears in the dark. That’s been my general state these past couple of weeks. Three or four weeks, actually. It’s been going on for so long, I’m starting to suspect it’s my natural state, and my occasional bursts of sustained writing and reading are the anomaly, artificially induced by deadlines.
The one thing I can still do when my brain is in sleep mode is cook. Thank God, because I still have to eat. Lately, I’ve even been having dreams about cooking. One night, I made linguine, over and over, all night long. I cracked an egg into a mound of fine-milled buckwheat flour, threw in some salt, mixed it into a dough, rolled it out, and cut it in long, fine strips and hung them on a rack. During the course of that night, I must have made enough fresh buckwheat linguine to feed the homeless population of Portland, Maine.
Anyway, a couple of nights after the linguine dream, I had a dream about a cucumber and tomato salad. It was very simple—summery, juicy, crunchy, and fresh. In my dream, I was so excited to eat it, I couldn’t stop banging on about how good it was and how much I’d been craving it.
When I woke up, it seemed obvious that I needed to make and eat this salad as soon as possible. Later that morning, after a fast hike through the slushy snow and ice on the Casco Bay trails at the Eastern Prom, we stopped at the small market on Munjoy Hill and bought a basketful of groceries. I love this little market. It’s tiny, but it’s full of everything we want and need, all of it beautiful, most of it locally grown.
We bought vegetables, herbs, tahini, chickpeas, lemons, feta, wild rice, and wine. Just before suppertime, I put a cup of wild rice on to cook in two cups of chicken broth. Then I made a batch of hummus in the little Cuisinart: first a quarter of a cup each of lemon juice and tahini, then when that was all smooth, a couple of cloves of garlic, a teaspoon of salt, two tablespoons of olive oil and a 15 ounce can of chickpeas, well rinsed, in two batches, with a dash of water. I dumped the creamy, rich hummus into a bowl, smoothed it out, then sprinkled cayenne and paprika and poured olive oil on top. It tasted better than any store-bought hummus I’d ever had. I’d never made it from scratch before, and now I couldn’t fathom why not.
Then I peeled, cored, and chopped two cucumbers along with two ripe tomatoes, diced a red onion, and minced a big bunch each of mint, cilantro, and parsley. I diced two red peppers, squeezed half a cup of fresh lemon juice, and then I was ready to throw together a tabbouleh and a salad.
I stuck the cooked rice in the freezer for a while to cool, then took it out and added half the chopped herbs, half the red onion, and a red pepper. I poured half the lemon juice into it, doused it with olive oil, added black pepper and cumin, mixed it well, tasted it, and lo, it was done.
The cucumbers and tomatoes, the second red pepper and other half of the red onion, and the rest of the herbs and lemon juice went into a separate bowl with more olive oil, cumin, and black pepper. I crumbled the entire block of feta over it, considered and decided against olives, mixed it well, and then that was done, too.
We heaped our plates high, piling the salad on top of a bed of baby arugula and the hummus on top of the tabbouleh. We sat at the counter, crunching away. The cucumber and tomato salad was as good as the one in my dream, or maybe even better, since I hadn’t thought to add feta in my dream. Sometimes real life is better.
We ate the leftovers for dinner the next night; the salad had marinated in the olive oil and lemon juice, and the wild rice tabbouleh had steeped in its own flavors, too, so everything was even more delicious the second time around.
My brain is still offline. But it’s a bit clearer; that influx of fresh raw vegetables seems to have given it a sort of boost, along with the “Israeli sandwiches” we’ve been eating for breakfast. I call them that because they remind me of the breakfast buffet at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, where I had the luxury of staying when I was in Israel for my cousin-in-law’s wedding, many years ago. In the hotel dining room were tables filled with platters mounded with smoked fish and creamy cheese and sliced raw vegetables and bagels and rye breads and fruit salad and olives and hummus and babaganoush and tabbouleh. I’ve been to Israel three times, and Jerusalem is an amazing, awe-inspiring city, of course, but that breakfast was memorable.
Israeli Breakfast Sandwich
Spread soft mild goat cheese on two pieces of hot toast. Add plenty of smoked fish (I used bluefish), ripe tomato and peeled cucumber, and a small handful of arugula. Clap the pieces together and eat it right away.
2014 is going to be the Year of No: no blurbing books, no reading anything I don’t want to read, no writing anything I don’t want to write, no drinking and eating too much, no spending so much time on the computer, no spending money on anything but necessities, the most important of which are Dingo, our house, the car, groceries, and books. NO NO NO. It’s also going to be a year of writing a new novel, a novel I’m starting to feel excited about, something new and different.
On December 14th, after two long, grueling days of driving back home from Iowa City, we crossed the Maine border well after dark (“Welcome to Maine: The Way Life Should Be”). We pulled into our garage that night at 8:00. Laden with stuff, we unlocked the door and walked into our house. I staggered around, my jaw agape: I couldn’t believe it. While we were in Iowa, I focused anxiously on all our house’s problems. I had forgotten how beautiful it is.
When the car was unloaded, Dingo walked and tucked away in his bed, we went straight to our favorite corner bistro and ordered the meal we’d been dreaming of for 1,000 miles: cocktails and lobster tail salad, then green salads and steak frites with a bottle of robust red wine. It was heavenly to be back there, eating our favorite meal; all the waitstaff remembered us and said welcome back. Walking home through the icy, snowy night, we had a silly fight, because we were as tired and cranky as two-year-olds after a birthday party. We laughed at ourselves, collapsed in our big comfortable bed, and corked off to the best sleep we’d had in months.
And then, in the week that followed, while Brendan got right back to work without missing a beat, I crashed into mornings and afternoons of long baths and spaced-out daydreaming. However, in a deeper sense, I also felt recharged, inspired, reconnected to my literary roots by my time in Iowa. I missed my students, the profound camaraderie we shared all those months. But it was good to be back in this ocean town with its briny winter air, softer somehow than the Midwestern bone-dry Arctic chill.
We spent Christmas in New Hampshire with Brendan’s parents, brothers, and grandmother, cooking feasts and playing games and walking in the icy snow. There was a tall, festooned pine tree in the library. On Christmas day, Brendan and his father made an Italian bolito, beef roast simmered with carrots and potatoes, then the fragrant broth used for tortellini soup and the tender meat served sliced with the vegetables alongside and a salsa verde of minced capers, anchovies, parsley, garlic, hard-boiled eggs, vinegar, and olive oil. We drank wine at the long table by candlelight as the sun went down and toasted one another – “To family.” This was Brendan’s and my fifth Christmas together and my third with his family. It was the best one we’ve ever had.
On the 28th, this past Saturday night, we threw a small cocktail party. It started at 5:30, as most evenings do in this town, and was over well before 10. About twenty of us drank two and a half bottles of whiskey, six bottles of wine, and three bottles of cava. We also ate a heap of food, a good-luck southern New Year’s spread: pulled pork (for health and forward motion), hoppin’ John (for luck), macaroni and cheese (for gold), and collard greens (for money) simmered with smoked ham hocks (for even more health and forward motion), plus doughnuts (for continuity, coming full circle) for dessert. We had decked the living rooms with pine wreaths and boughs (which we got for free because it was after Christmas, so the guy at the flower shop down the street was about to throw them all out), plus lots of lit candles and strings of old-fashioned colored Christmas lights, the 1970s bulb kind. The rooms were aglow and gorgeous, but of course everyone congregated around the food and booze in the undecorated, brightly lit kitchen and didn’t budge. And so it always goes… but it didn’t matter. It was so good to see our friends again.
We spent last night, New Year’s Eve, with more friends. My paperback editor and her husband, who are in town for the holidays, came over for a glass of wine and a couple of hours of bubbly, convivial conversation, and then we drove to South Portland to a dinner party with one of our favorite couples, Michael and Jeffrey, and some old, dear friends of theirs. First, there was smoked fish with flash-pickled carrots and beets along with Japanese roast pork wrapped in lettuce with hot pepper sauce. For dinner, they had made a Boston boiled dinner, corned beef with cabbage and potatoes, another variation of the good-luck traditional humble New Year’s meal – “Eat poor on New Year’s, and eat fat the rest of the year.”
We all laughed and talked all night on gusts of warmth and happiness. Our hosts’ charming, gamine seven-year-old daughter, Phoebe, performed magic tricks with aplomb, then brought out her whoopee cushion and remote-controlled flying sphere, to endless hilarity. The two dogs and lovely little tabby cat were charming and gamine, as well. We got home by midnight, went to bed shortly after that, and awoke to a bright new year, ready to let go of the old one.
Sauté in plenty of olive oil 1 chopped onion, 2 ribs celery, 1 green and 1 red pepper, and 8 cloves of chopped garlic. Add very generous dashes of cumin, paprika, salt, pepper, thyme, as well as 2-3 minced jalapeno peppers and a bay leaf. Add 1 package chopped turkey andouille (4 sausages) and sauté until everything is fragrant and soft. Add 2 cups of chicken broth, a can of diced tomatoes, several shots of Tabasco, 2-3 cans of lightly rinsed blackeyed peas, and ½ cup long-grained white rice. Simmer, covered and stirring every now and then, for 30-40 minutes. Add more broth if needed. Taste — adjust seasonings — cook until rice is soft.