The worst dark nights of the soul, I think, are when my smaller failings rise up one by one in a chorus of metallic voices: that unwritten obligatory important letter, my tipsy, laughing, unintentional, klutzy faux pas booming into a sudden silence, the failure to speak when speaking would have helped someone…
These things are much worse to recall than any of my gigantic, life-changing mistakes. Those are boulders too big to see all at once, hulking, unmoving, and strangely safe, whereas the little things generate a cascade that turns into an avalanche. They’re all attached to one another somehow, neurochemically or magnetically, so that remembering just one of them sets off a chain reaction sparking all the way back through the decades with increasing centrifugal urgency until I’ve looped through my entire life, all the way back to the first one, which now seems worse than ever in light of all the others.
Deep breathing has never worked for me even remotely, but refocusing sometimes pulls me to safety if I can trick my brain into latching onto a different, equally powerful whirligig and transferring its grip. Evidently, my mind wants to whirl in those dark little hours when there’s nothing to distract it from its own petty storms. It wants to obsess and stew, rehash and foment.
But sometimes, if I start to picture what’s downstairs in the kitchen cupboards and fridge and those bowls on the counter, and try to piece everything together in a series of interesting meals, and fill in any gaps with a mental grocery list, it turns into a fun, riveting game so engaging I forget what a horrible person I am and fixate instead on the far more relevant question of what I plan to cook and eat in the near future. Let’s say, hypothetically, that there’s some goat cheese downstairs, plus a butternut squash, some red onions, ginger, garlic. Also, there are some apples… a box of chicken broth… pine nuts…
Before I know it, I’m asleep again.
Those waking night voices of sharp remorse are the exact opposite of the escapist pleasures of the waking daydream, except for one thing: none of it is real, neither the urgent horrors of remembered transgressions nor the inventions of the untethered mind. Also, both are vastly improved with thoughts of food.
I used to talk to myself a lot as a kid and teenager. I used my imagination’s power to lift me out of whatever circumstances I found myself in, to whisk my brain away from anxieties and dissatisfactions. When I was 12, in 7th grade, I had a paper route. As I rode along on my blue 3-speed Schwinn through suburban streets, flinging the Phoenix Gazette onto lawns and patios and carport driveways, I told myself stories, aloud-under-my-breath, so engrossed in my narration, I never noticed anyone staring at me or looking at me at all.
I was especially fond of English characters, since I fancied I had an excellent British accent. I loved to say things like, “I don’t hold with that, Lady Winthrop, you know that perfectly well! I’ve always disapproved of such goings-on,” or, “My goodness, child, you’re all drenched from the moors! You’ll catch your death! I’ll draw you a hot bath straightaway, that’ll take care of those chilblains.” These stories always had food in them, which I conjured with loving, envious happiness: kidneys and rashers of bacon and buttered toast in chafing dishes at the breakfast-table for Lady Winthrop; strong tea and currant scones with jam by the bedroom fire after that hot bath.
On those days when I wasn’t in the mood for drawing rooms and moors, I narrated the ongoing saga of a group of high school students in Hobson Heights, a made-up 1950s Midwestern neighborhood, their romances and heartbreaks, the strivings and ambitions of the more interesting among them. On weekend nights, they piled into someone’s jalopy and went to the Burger Shack Drive-In to order icy Cokes in waxy cups with straws, salty, crisp French fries, and cheeseburgers with extra pickles and ketchup from girls on roller skates. After school, they loved to make cocoa, grilled cheese sandwiches, and chocolate-chip cookies before doing their homework at the dinette.
Eventually, I grew up and stopped talking to myself on a regular basis. I confined myself to the occasional gasp or soft screech during public waking hours whenever I realized something awful I’d done; I kept everything else to myself.
When I moved to Portland, Maine last year, it began to dawn on me that this town is filled with people, grownups, who walk along the sidewalks, yakking away. They’re not wearing earpieces. No one is with them. They don’t make eye contact with anyone. But their conversations seem fierce, opinionated, and punctuated. They cackle, roll their eyes, gesture, nod, and tsk-tsk at themselves.
So I’ve started doing it again, too. Everyone does, so why not me? Shortly after I got here, initially startled by the preponderance of what used to be called “crazies,” I started jokingly calling the place Freaktown. I still call it that, but there’s nothing but fondness in the term for me now, as well as self-implication. People in this town feel free to pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh at gilded butterflies, while the rest of the world walks along in silence.
Dark Night of the Soul Soup
Peel, core, and chop a butternut squash and three apples. Peel and cut up a red onion. Coarsely chop a knob of ginger and peel 8 cloves of garlic. Roast everything in peanut oil on a cookie sheet for 20 minutes at 400 degrees. Puree with enough chicken broth to make a thick soup, adding half and half as desired. Salt and pepper to taste. Heat in a saucepan. Serve in large shallow soup bowls with goat cheese and toasted pine nuts on top.