Ash

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“Where does the history go between two people when one of them dies?  All that landscape is lost.  And for a long time after the person you loved is gone you want to tell their story, so the story you’ve had together isn’t lost.  If it’s an ordinary story, one by one the people you try to tell it to stop listening.”  – Sharon White, Field Notes

In February 2010, a snowplow struck my mother in the head as she crossed a busy Manhattan intersection.  She laid unconscious at the Bellevue SICU after undergoing surgery to relieve the pressure in her hemorrhaging brain. On the morning before Valentine’s Day, I left my husband and children in Utah and flew to New York City to help my sister complete the inevitable tasks of impending death.

By Ash Wednesday, four days later, I felt desperate to leave.  I navigated the city streets – a mindless cipher, tapping an internal compass to reach my best friend. I got lost on the walk to Grand Central, though I’d walked there countless times before.  The churches propped open their doors. I kept passing people with telltale smudges on their foreheads.  A man tried to speak with me, took a single look at my face, and turned on his heels, hurrying away, plainly discomfited by what he saw.  I eventually made my way to Grand Central, and rode the train to Ossining with the opiate of angry buzzing in my ears.  What should have been a happy reunion with a dear friend was marred by intervals of despondency, numbness, disorientation, and tears.

There were long hours in the hospital: before the staff removed her ventilator, a process which required written and verbal consent, as well as consultation with a crisis counselor; when they dosed her with morphine to reduce her tremors; the wrenching anticipation of when it was going to happen – when her body would heed her brain and finally cease to function.  It took six days.  Then three more until my sister and I secured a funeral.  So much waiting for a body vacated by its soul.

My mother wore a St. Christopher pendant nearly every day for as long as I can remember, a simple golden disk with a picture of a man carrying a child on his back.  The pendant reads: Saint Christopher – Protect Us.  She wasn’t wearing the pendant the day she died.

I harbor this irrational fear that something will take me away as swiftly as my mother was taken from me.  My husband and I never told the kids what happened to mom; we just stopped mentioning her.  If something happened to me, what would become of my children? How would they remember me?  In Refuge, Terry Tempest Williams writes, “But the feeling I could not purge from my soul was that without a mother, one no longer has the luxury of being a child.”  Now that I have been both a daughter and a mother, I see the terrible incongruity of loss.  A parent ought never to experience the grief of burying one’s own child.  But to imagine leaving a void in the lives of your children is pretty awful too.

How I begrudged my mother for her secrets! Who does silence benefit?  Certainly not the person who carries her secrets like large pebbles sewn into the hem of her dress.  Not the people who, by dint of circumstance, were present when the event occurred and who must knowingly, through fear or complicity, share the burden of another’s silence.  Mom never understood that I write to free myself from the weight of too many stones.  The irony is that mom wrote to cast away her pebbles too: she made monthly journal entries after she arrived in the States, testing out her English and unburdening her soul.  She just never shared her writing with anyone.

From her journal: “I only want to ask: Dear God, where am I?  And where are you?”

After she died, I started walking away from things, shedding parts of me: a sliver of soul here, steady streams of tears there, raw whispers into the darkness.  I realized how much of myself I’d cloistered away, afraid to reveal who I really am for the sake of protecting mom.  What about protecting what I valued in myself?  What about remembering what I needed to keep living?

A friend sent me a copy of Field Notes after mom died.  The first half – the crushing recollection of a young writer’s grief upon losing her husband to cancer – I liked.  The latter half I interpreted as a quasi-happy ending, and, though I once considered myself a hopeless happy ending person, I no longer am.

When I was in high school, I elected to move in with my dad for the fall semester of sophomore year.  It was a rash decision based on my unrelenting desire to flee Coney Island.  I was tired of being taunted and afraid; I was tired of being leered at by the men who owned the local supermarket, Key Foods, and by random strangers on the subway. The counselor at my new school suggested that a school-sponsored trip to Escalante with a group of my peers might help ease the transition from New York to Utah.

Our group spent several days hiking through Escalante on a ‘survival’ trip.  I recall Jolly Rancher candies, nuts and seeds, and Tang, punctuated by the unspeakable beauty of rocks and the desert, and, for an unaccustomed city girl, grueling hikes.  I did not yet understand the school counselor’s goal: take a youth at risk (of what, I don’t know, but my life was not on an even keel), put her in one of Utah’s national treasures, and hope something important ignites.

The biggest challenge of the trip was the solo night.  Our guides deposited us along stretches of a riverbed, placing us a significant distance – and on opposite sides of the river – from one another.  We were to spend the night alone, using common sense and newly learned skills to set up camp, start a fire, and feed ourselves.  They placed me in a cave under an immense rock face.  I wasn’t prepared, couldn’t start a fire.  I felt terrified as night fell.  I remember sitting up in my sleeping bag, shaking.  And suddenly, I felt a hand on my shoulder.  There had been no footsteps, and I didn’t hear sloshing in the river either before the sensation or a few moments later when the sensation went away.  But the calmness that washed over me was unmistakable, as palpable as the river and the sand I sat upon.  Something ignited.

In the morning, we ate pancakes cooked on the ashes of a fire.  Ashcakes.  They were delicious.

I returned to my mother in New York in January the next year, bringing with me a newfound belief in angels – of a sort – or at least energies, both positive and negative.  After mom died, I kept waiting for a sign to point me back to that girl who believed in angels.  There were no signs, only ashes.

© Julia Moris-Hartley, 2010 – 2015

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Dining Hall Confidential

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The early morning scene at the student canteen.

I pile my plate with fresh fruit, and consider what to add. Some toast, some yogurt? An egg or two, fried to luscious, runny order? Cheesy grits sprinkled with crushed bacon and sassed with Cholula? Breakfast in the dining hall rarely disappoints.

Lunch and dinner provide further choices. With a full salad bar, a gluten-free station, a noodle station, two bain-maries of soup, two stations for “traditional” entrees, and a grill-master who makes breakfast omelets to order and fires quick proteins for lunch, any given meal can be customized to one’s appetite. The Executive Chef and his staff prepare upwards of a thousand servings every day that school is in session; and, since meals are included in a teacher’s salary, I partake.

To many, the dining hall represents a near-Utopian bounty, a culinary failsafe for the tired and overworked. Visitors often compliment the quality and variety of foods offered. My dad, whose travels bring him through town on a semi-regular basis, coordinates his arrival specifically for the weekend brunch. (In his teens, he attended boarding school in Africa and marvels that our school kitchen keeps weevils out of its oatmeal.)

The dining hall also provides a rich feast for a writer whose primary passion revolves around the pleasures of the plate. It presents three opportunities a day to connect with others and discover discrete food preferences, which I scribble onto mental notes for later rumination. Its communal setting encourages food voyeurism. One colleague, I’ve noticed, prefers his sandwiches piled thick with vegetables; another brings four bowls of cereal to the table at once, then proceeds to methodically eat the contents of each. My girlfriends try to include a salad at lunch, though whether these salads excite us is frequently left to speculation. Some colleagues are dessert-hoarders, squirreling sweets before they disappear in the dinner rush; others return for seconds by habit, rather than necessity. The dining hall is, in short, a food writer’s wet dream.

However, to quote a former professor, after ecstasy comes the laundry. On certain days, addled by grading or the disappointment of a less-than-stellar class, my lunch consists of French fries, brown gravy, and chocolate milk. Or heaping bowls of clam chowder, chased by sugary mint tea. Or rosemary flank steak and Gorgonzola mashed potatoes. I don’t need ingredient labels to tell me the innate truth. Boarding school veterans know that plentiful foods offer plentiful dietary missteps. The pounds amass where they may.

By the time I’ve eaten breakfast and lunch at the dining hall, it’s the last place I want to return for supper. I shoo away my husband and children – Off to the dining hall and don’t come back until you’re full! - and willingly squander the dinner-portion of my salary to stay home and correct the caloric choices I’ve made earlier in the day. My dilemma is uniquely boarding school-centric and indisputably first world-privileged.

What a situation to take for granted! I start to miss the dining hall as soon as school lets out for break: a week at Thanksgiving, two weeks in the spring, three weeks mid-winter, and the staggeringly long summer. (To clarify, when school is in session, the faculty is on-call 24/7, because our students are our neighbors for the entire academic year. I’m not complaining about the duration of much-needed breaks, only the rattle of the dining hall’s locked doors.) Boarding school life has effectively eroded my culinary stamina: I have to cook for my family? Three times a day? And I love to cook!

Each post-break brunch is a joyous reunion, an affirmation of the power of sharing meals. Like teenagers, colleagues who have become friends cluster around their preferred tables, giggling and exchanging stories that intervened in our absences from one another. Our conversations range wildly and are, to me, resplendent in their wacky, amusing transitions and subject matter. This is, perhaps, the heart of why school breaks feel so hollow. In the dining hall, the food is plentiful and delicious, but it’s the company that ultimately makes the meal.

© Julia Moris-Hartley, 2015

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Starter Pack

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New life comes to friends around me. In the last month, I’ve congratulated parents-to-be and anticipated the purchase of adorable children’s clothing and, particularly, children’s books: Knuffle Bunny; Where The Wild Things Are; To Market, To Market; Love You Forever; A Sick Day for Amos McGee… I could, I think, recite these books by heart. My spirit surges with joy for my friends, now in the place in which I found myself ten (almost eleven) years ago. Yet their exuberance, this newness, evokes conflicting emotions. I feel a bit like a member of the Senate of Established Parents: What advice should I share? How honest is too honest? How much do I even remember? The resulting list comes from a late-night gathering of “Senators” who wish we’d known then what we know now.

Just Sign Here… And Here… And Here… And….

In my limited experience, it was much easier to contribute another human being to the gene pool than it was to obtain a driver’s license. (Friends who went through hell to conceive understandably disagree.) Most legal procedures require tests, forms, money, and unflattering photographs prior to initiation. When, for example, a person invests in something important, like a new appliance or car, the purchase usually includes an operation manual. With pregnancy, it’s Have Fertilized Egg, Will Travel. The authorized paperwork occurs later. Parenthood is absurd in that we enter it completely untrained and ill equipped.

Here’s Your Beautiful, Darling Miracle… Good Luck With That.

I attended the prenatal breastfeeding class that the hospital offered. I have the certificate and the detailed notes to prove it. Breastfeeding is lauded as the most natural and beneficial way to feed your child. Doing so seemed like such a no-brainer. And yet, one week into Kai’s early life, sleepless and exhausted from feeding him 10-12 times a day, my nipples sore and bleeding (apologies for the mental image), nothing I learned in the class applied to feeding the wailing child in my lap. Dear Parents, don’t be a stubborn wretch like me. Don’t wait until it’s too late and the nurse seated across from you says something hurtful, like, “You’ve been doing it all wrong” or “What in God’s name took you so long to come in?” If you plan to breastfeed, schedule a consultation with a Lactation Specialist as soon as your baby is born.

On Lobotomies

Maybe you’re the type of person who listens to classical music in your down time. If you are, please skip this section. If you aren’t, RUN – do not walk! – as fast as you can from those cutesy collections of baby composers. Run to save the last remnant of your adult sanity. Run to save yourself. It’s fine to stay away. I raised my children on Billy Idol and the entire 80s oeuvre, Madonna, Eminem, the Beastie Boys, and Chevelle. Kai and Rory both love music today; they adore Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, singing, and wild dance rumpuses. The mathematic, mind-enhancing properties attributed to rhythm and meter prevailed. And I spared myself a lobotomy.

Sexy Time

For a while, there might not be any. That’s okay, because:

  1. Parenthood is sexy and empowering.
  2. You start to notice sexy new habits with your partner, like how he wakes up to feed the baby in the middle of the night or the way she consistently slam-dunks dirty diapers.
  3. Um, maybe sexy time takes a brief hiatus. It’s still okay.

Disclaimer: I, Julia Moris-Hartley, do solemnly swear that I never use the term “sexy time” in real life.

Keep Calm and Parent On

Millennia of procreative pursuits have shown that humans are fairly resilient. We withstand drought, plight, famine, mass migration, war, pillaging, diabolical dictators, journey by chuck wagon, scurvy, stomach flu, diaper rash, and plagues of Biblical proportion. Your little one is a testament of endurance. S/he will not break.

Time to Make The Donuts

Heretical and methodical as I may sound to the feed-on-demand faction, putting your baby on a reliable feeding schedule makes you both happier. Babies develop the understanding that life follows a pattern: wake up, eat, play, snuggle, rest, repeat. The number of daily feeding cycles decreases as your child grows. Your baby starts to sleep for longer stretches. You feel almost alive again. If you choose to adopt a schedule and one morning find – miracle of miracles! –your baby sleeping in, make yourself a coffee and enjoy every sip. No need to wake your child up if he/she sleeps past feeding time. Babies need sleep.

Peas Before Pineapples

When baby graduates to solid foods, members of the Parenting Committee recommend introducing vegetables and savory foods well before sweet ones. The rationale: it’s much easier to cultivate an appreciation for pureed beans before baby knows that applesauce might be an alternative.

Haters Gonna Hate

You are not a bad person if the only baby you like is your own. Being the epic, unique creation of your union with your partner, your baby is obviously superior in every way. You will love your child so much that it physically hurts. Show baby some affection by cuddling often. Kiss your little one so much s/he smells like you. Try not to be offended if other mortals fail to celebrate baby’s perfection, 100 percent of the time.

The Take-Away

Most of all, trust that the Maternal Order of Parenthood makes converts of everyone – once you see your baby’s face, that’s it. You’re imprinted. You love the “pilgrim soul” in your child forever. And one day, too soon, memories of the hurdles you faced will dim, perhaps prompting you to start again. Savor every precious minute.

*

A special note of thanks to Senators English, Austin, Roth, and Quackenbush, and Honorary Speakers Brinkley and Ryckman, for their participation in the January Symposium on Parenting.

© Julia Moris-Hartley, 2015

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Little Owl

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If I knew then what I know now…

My son, Kai, cried incessantly as a newborn. He breastfed around the clock, never satisfied by the milk I produced: his begonia pink lips suckled the air in his rare moments of sleep, and begged my knuckles for more while he was awake. I slept little during his first few months, withering under Kai’s wakeful, insistent hunger, feeling at times more like a cow than a woman. Sleep-deprived, I cried constantly… just like Kai.

Kai didn’t – wouldn’t – sleep in his crib, so we converted a second car seat to hold him after we finally cajoled him into slumber. I fed Kai in dimmed lamplight before work each morning, while outside coyotes rustled in the pre-dawn respite from Tucson’s heat. I placed Kai back in his seat before leaving, worrying my thumb across his forehead, over and over, to soothe him. His eyelids slowly drooped until flaxen eyelashes fanned his plump cheeks and I made my escape, creeping out the front door like a sour-smelling thief.

I’m embarrassed now by how long it took me to pinpoint the source of Kai’s newborn restlessness. My husband and I initially attributed his discontent to colic and our glaring inexperience. Over time, though, I began to notice small hints of something else.

Kai is sensitive. Not sensitive in the cruel, soft-bellied way that society attributes to weakness and “wimps,” but, rather, emotionally astute. He “reads” people’s moods and implied nuances the way a gardener knows the veins and freckles of his plants – the health of the crenellations in tender green leaves, the direction in which new shoots might unfurl. He understands the intersection of physical and spiritual the way a baker works a fragrant loaf from bubbling, yeasty starts. Kai is intense, deep, and, most tellingly, tactile. He touches everything. Hugs release the anchors from his soul. If I’d made the connection when he was a baby, I would have cuddled him until he levitated.

Kai turns ten this week. He’s almost as tall as me, and wears one shoe size smaller than I do. Where once he embraced my knees, now his hugs cradle my shoulders. Kai’s thoughtful brown eyes widen as he talks: “You know, mom, I think…” His hands emphasize his words. If there’s a stairwell, he reliably jumps the last steps, his lanky limbs clattering to the ground. Lately, he’s developed a dancing streak.

Kai struggles with his sensitivity, though I insist it is a valuable strength, reminding him of the many ways in which it helps him build relationships with others and showcase his empathy. Our dog adores him for the constant affection he shows her. Kai is the first to offer help. His friends smile the goofiest, sweetest grins when he’s around. His laughter is a fine thing.

There are a handful of things I wish I could do over, knowing now what I wish I knew then. Those early months with Kai top the list. I am so grateful that, with Kai, every day is an improvement from the one before. The trajectory of our relationship arcs upward, marked by a broadened sense of understanding. Seeing him develop as a young man has been worth every tear.

Happy birthday, little owl.

© Julia Moris-Hartley, 2015

 

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Hot Springs Prophet

IMG_1013For the last few years, friends have invited our family to join them on holiday sojourns in one of the small Idaho towns built around natural hot springs. We’ve joined them eagerly each time. This year, my friends and I met an individual who was working through some difficult issues. We laughed about him later, joking that he’d imbibed more than the two shots of cognac he mentioned, but, for better or worse, he earned the distinction of my first “big personality” of the new year.

Our “conversation” is recorded below. His comments appear in italics; mine in plain text.

*

Hi. I’m sorry. Am I in your way? I hope you’ll excuse me; I was just praying. Then a raven flew over my head and it was you. Sit down. Tell me about you.

I am wary of non-Native Americans who reference totem animals during introductions, and I just realized why you are the only person in this pool. You’re physically blocking my exit, and it would seem rude for me to run for the opposite exit. I’m congenitally polite. That’s why I’m still here with you.

How old are you? I’m 41, and I hope I don’t look it.

You look like you used to surf. You have pale blue eyes, short brown hair, and an established tan. A fossilized tooth – large as a fist, and veined with gold and diamonds – dangles from your neck. The wind blows steam between us, obscuring your face. In my mind, I am praying that one of my larger male friends catches sight of us and rescues me from you. I curse myself for damsel-mentality.

Do you love your kids? Do you love your husband? How do you feel about your marriage?

Are you high or just an everyday creeper? I am a terrible liar. I keep my answers short and unspecific, because your sabertooth necklace could be a weapon and I don’t want to risk enraging you.

Last week, I divorced from my wife of eighteen years. She was my world. She was my Jesus, until I realized that I was Jesus… I loved my kids… You know the movie FrozenMy wife decided to divorce me after that movie came out.

Why did you just refer to your children in the past tense?

I worked so hard – like 16-, 20- hour days – and I made hundreds of millions. But she stopped seeing Jesus in me. And I stopped seeing Jesus in her.

“Yes, sometimes it is hard to see the best in people, especially the people who are closest to you.” Polite and genuine. Great.

I see Jesus in everybody. In Satanists, in atheists.

I start trembling at the mention of Satanists. I hope you don’t notice. I am beginning to worry that you will drown me while my friends chat away in other pools. 

I met this one lady – she must have been eighty. You know what she told me? She said, ‘Tell a boy in fourth to sixth grade that he is great, and he will love you forever. Tell the same to a girl of the same age, and she’ll hate you.’ It’s the Mars – Venus thing. Men and women are just different. But we all have Jesus within us. I guess I got complacent.

“Complacency blossoms easily.” You nod.

I punched a guy the other day. He was an atheist and he didn’t like it that I saw Jesus in him. So he got in my face and I punched him. Punched a guy in the hot springs.

You are definitely a serial killer.

I’m just trying to do the right thing. I share my message. I have, like, 27 million Facebook followers. I see Jesus in you.

I see Jesus in you, too. Oh look, here’s my friend, Max. I hope that you find the resolution that you seek, but I have to go get my kids out of the pool. See ya!

*

Later that night, I wrote the Prophet a letter.

Dear Prophet,

I understand you on many basic human levels. You’re going through feelings I can’t imagine or grasp, because I haven’t lived them. You don’t know me from Jesus, but I feel a little like I know you. I guess the most important thing is this: do your best to live through the pain, and trust that the universe holds alternate paths for you. I hope the new year will improve your outlook as you begin to heal.

Best wishes,

Jules

My counselor friends tell me that going through a divorce is comparable to mourning a death, so on New Year’s Day, I ripped up the letter and set the pieces on fire. I left the ashes for the universe to reclaim.

© Julia Moris-Hartley, 2015

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Angels Among Us

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My students and I recently finished reading Milkweed by Jerry Spinelli. The book’s narrator, Misha, is a young boy of indeterminate age – probably 8 or younger, we decided – who has been living on the streets and thieving for so long that he has no recollection of his past otherwise. His innocence provides moments of humor but also confounds us. How could a child lack memories? How could a young boy exist without knowledge of birthday cakes, baths, and medicines?

Intrigued, I asked the students about their earliest memories. I was surprised that many of them cited memories from age two and three in some detail, while others, like me, were older when their first memories formalized. They recalled sensory details: the fur of a brother’s Halloween costume; hiding in the back of a closet, skin brushed by low-hanging clothes, dark shadows around them. I made my best case for memory’s lack of specificity; they returned with the observation that one person’s memory rarely matches another’s, so an individual’s memory is specific to him- or herself. I suggested that sometimes the stories families tell create a mental image that then supports a family-centered reality. Some agreed; some didn’t. The discussion made me wonder if and how the acquisition of knowledge nudges certain memories to the periphery while other memories remain static and dependable.

*

My first memory dates back to age five. Like my students, the details dwell in the senses. I lay in my bed at the house on King Street, tucked under a Holly Hobbie blanket. It was night, and a small column of hallway light fell across my bed. My grandmother, who at the time was undergoing treatment for a cancer she didn’t conquer, sat at the edge of the bed, stroking my forehead. Her sapphire eyes shone in the dark. She wore a velvet robe and turban to match her eyes. Before I fell asleep, I imagined that all angels must look like my grandmother.

*

Misha gives significant thought to the presence of angels. He polls others: do they believe in angels? Some do; others scoff at him. A kind doctor convinces Misha that angels exist, and Misha eventually comes to think that we each have an angel who lives within us.

In the book, Misha is something of an angel himself. He begins life with no one to guide him, yet he intuitively senses right from wrong. He pilfers food wherever he can, but he shares it with those he cares for. He doesn’t have to share any of it – the book is set in the Warsaw ghetto, and everyone is sick with starvation – but he does anyway. I have read Milkweed several times, for pleasure and in preparation for discussion, and Misha is one of the unforgettables: the characters we adopt as real, for whom we root, worry, cry, and laugh as if they were one of our own. Misha made me reconsider the nature of angels.

*

Misha has no recollection of his life before orphanhood. When the book’s big brother-figure, Uri, bestows him with an elaborate personal “history,” Misha’s response is nothing short of jubilation. He loves his story and recounts it to anyone who will listen. His memories evolve over time, altered by oral embellishments.

I identify with Misha in this regard. I never knew my mother’s parents or the details surrounding so much of what made up her story. I have only her journals as a window to her past. Instead, I embraced my grandparents’ rich history growing up. My grandfather completed his autobiography shortly before he passed away. I love to share his stories: finding thieves searching his bedroom in pre-WWII China; coming face to face with water buffalo on a hunting expedition in Tanzania; developing a hospital built on education for those afflicted with leprosy. My pride in their legacy of accomplishments is an integral part of who I am. Like Misha, too, I’ll tell my story to anyone who will listen.

*

A couple weeks ago, my father gave me a collection of china that belonged to my grandmother, noting that it was one of her three “most prized possessions.” She carried it everywhere she lived during her missionary career. The set contains twelve of everything – plates, salad plates, teacups, saucers, bowls, soup bowls, and a pitcher, serving bowl, and cream and sugar set – a simple bamboo design in immaculate condition, despite many years of traveling abroad.

I had no idea this collection existed, much less that my grandmother treasured it. Dad supplied these details. I have few recollections of my grandmother; she died right around the time of my first clear memory. Sometimes I speculate whether she might have been an actual angel.

I know from what my grandfather has written that she was instrumental in sponsoring my mother’s passage into the States. If not for her, I might be one of thousands of Julias scrapping for money and success in the Ukraine. My grandmother’s drive made my life as it exists today possible. I held back tears when my father, eyes sparkling and mustache twitching, said, “She would have been delighted for you to have them.”

Dad left as suddenly as he came, and I attended to the collection, hand washing every piece, holding very tightly, and then towel drying each one. In an hour and a half, I had built neat stacks, each dish separated by a paper towel buffer. My palms tingled, as they do whenever I feel excited. This was a treasure I never anticipated, but will cherish. It represents something much larger – a tangible connection to the lives my grandparents led in service to the Lutheran Church, and to a woman I remember, if only a little, adoring. If Misha were with me, I would have told him that often angels live within us, but sometimes they like to travel.

© Julia Moris-Hartley, 2014

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Pilgrim

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Over the summer, I gave myself permission to relax. I – mother, wife, teacher, writer, tutor, freelancer, runner, accountant, cook, laundress, housekeeper, chauffeur, homework monitor, dog walker, and giver of hugs – gave myself permission. As if indulging in a good book and an afternoon in the garden are against the rules. As if rest is a transgression. Absurd. And yet, I found it irritating and difficult to do fewer of the things that keep me busy and more of the things that keep me happy.

I promised myself a summer of reading and writing, going back to beginnings as I’d resolved at the start of the year. Lacking the ability to travel, I sent my imagination to distant places through the eyes of others. Tamar Adler and I supplicated ourselves to the ghost of M.F.K. Fisher; Kathe Lison took me to the alpages and fromageries of France. Kirstin Jackson and I toured the States to meet the pioneers of artisanal cheese production. Gary Paul Nabhan, faculty and endowed chair at my alma mater, introduced me to the historical complexities of the spice trade in the Middle East. I shared tears and bittersweet laughter with Anya Von Bremzen, whose reminiscences of Soviet cuisine made me deeply miss my mother. Unconstrained by budget, time, or responsibility, my mind savored its pilgrimages.

But envy crept into my heart. Each of the books I read provided an example of a life I’m not leading: grants I didn’t solicit, award money I didn’t win, opportunities I missed. Rationally, I know that comparing myself to others is not productive or healthy. Rationally, I know that writing is work, and one must write (and submit) constantly in order to be published. Entry fees cost money, which necessitates other work, which in turn constrains the time and space required to write. Someone who lives in a literary desert and devotes entirely too much creative energy to tasks other than writing waits a longer-than-average time for rain.

School resumed and my days have, once again, grown chaotic and unpredictable. I send essays off to contests as much as I can, though not as much as I would like to. I actively seek out reasons to write. It’s a struggle, though, and one day I fear my reasons will dissipate, if my imagination doesn’t first.

My summer of beginnings taught me how challenging the intentional practice of being kind to oneself can be, and, moreover, how challenging it is to convert this practice into changed behavior. For now, I repeat my personal mantra. I turn my back to guilt and jealousy, and try not to think about the algorithms that conspire to make my world smaller. Though I have lessons to plan, homework to grade, and dishes to wash, I write towards my dream.

For further reading:

An Everlasting Meal by Tamar Adler. Filled with practical suggestions for preparing, serving, and storing ingredients, Adler models her own writing after the work of the mighty M.F.K. Fisher. My only complaint about this book is that I didn’t write it first.

The Whole Fromage by Kathe Lison. Do not – I repeat, do not – give this book to a cheese-loving Francophile unless you also intend to purchase his/her airfare abroad. This book filled me with such a powerful longing to follow in Lison’s footsteps that I swilled an entire bottle of cabernet, then erupted in an inconsolable (and petulant) crying jag about my meaningless life. If you must, buy the book and a bottle of wine to give to your friend, but stick around to provide comfort as she sniffles into her wineglass.

It’s Not You, It’s Brie by Kirstin Jackson. Perfect for any curd nerd, and slightly less depressing because Jackson’s U.S. destinations seem more attainable. If, however, you are one of the curd nerds in my life, might I suggest waiting until after your next birthday to look into a copy?

Cumin, Camels, and Caravans by Gary Paul Nabhan. Informative and thorough, with wonderful profiles about the spices of the world, Nabhan’s writing almost convinced me to go back to grad school. Almost.

Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking by Anya Von Bremzen. The author and her mother cook meals that go back in time and personal history as far as the start of the last century. Her whip smart voice and vocabulary could knock a person over.

© Julia Moris-Hartley, 2014

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#nofilter

IMG_0261_3Rory, sometimes I sneak into your bedroom and cuddle with your Puppet Eeyore. I inhale his fading, bedraggled fur and imagine when you were just born, when your fingers first grasped Eeyore’s right ear. You had curly black hair then. Each night as you slept, you sloughed away a fine, downy line from the back of your head. This left you with a bald patch. I can’t remember when your hair became flaxen and smooth, but I promise that you were the most adorable bald person I’ve ever known.

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We named you after the Aurora Borealis, a phenomenon I’ve long wished to see. I saw your name everywhere as you grew inside me: on billboards, clothing tags, toys, magazines…. Graceful Dawn in Latin, I believe that you are an emissary from some celestial plane infinitely lovelier than this one.

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You recently adopted a kitten. You cried tears of joy after we brought her home. Though you wanted to name her Snowball, I convinced you that Ginger better matched her personality. Vocal, she mews at every provocation; feisty, she lunges at your worm-like toes, scrambles to wrestle our sausage fingers. Her tufted fur and proto-Persian markings render us willing servants. If you continue to care for her as thoughtfully as you have so far, the Ginger Era may turn out to be an excellent totalitarian regime.

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Your grandmother once expressed alarm about my anti-doll philosophy. She worried that it would deprive you of the opportunity to learn and develop a sense of nurturing. If she could see you with Ginger – her tiny body tucked into the crook of your pillow, your tender ministrations to the purring dictator in your bed – her fear would be allayed.

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Last night, we walked the town streets discussing art and owls. The power had gone out and we felt restless. You wore your Tae Kwon Do suit underneath your blue fleece parka, a black kitten cap pulled snugly over your ears. We spotted an owl, perched high in a pine tree as the evening sky faded, and watched it for several minutes before it flew away. Rain fell on our heads. We hastened back home. Though we’d only been outside for a little while, covering perhaps eight blocks distance, gratitude alighted in my heart.

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Over the summer, I found a photo of myself that I hadn’t ever seen. Someone – my dad, maybe – had taken it at Yellowstone National Park when I was eight, just a little older than you are now. The girl in the photo is a riot of 80s fashion crimes. She has buckteeth and awkwardly long legs. She’s laughing. I gasped. How long has it been since I’ve smiled so freely? My wish for you is that you never confront the realization that you can’t remember your last true smile.

So many fashion crimes, so little time...

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Please forgive me when I am too pensive. You’re growing up so quickly in a world that frightens me. I did not grow up in a generation of self-photographers and videographers. I knew cherry bombs, not photo bombs. I chose with whom I would confide my mistakes and regrets. I underappreciated my control over the contents of my life.

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When I turned 11 and began developing physically, I begged my mother to buy me a training bra. She did not. The boys at school peered through my shirtsleeves, snickering. In the Christmas show, they caroled about my “chestnuts.” The cruelest tormenters were not boys, however. They were the girls who lived in Seagate. Though my mom eventually realized my need for coverage, the damage had been done. I still remember everything about those girls. I pray that mean girls will not exist in your world. But if they do, trust that I will fight on your side… and punch throats if necessary.

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Each morning, I paint on the color that time washes from my face. I remember my mother’s pale oleander lips and begin to understand her dependence on lipstick. Did I appreciate my smile when I was younger? Did I ever look in the mirror and think anything other than This is as good as it’s going to get? I sprinted into adulthood, only to learn that there is no race and certainly no finish line. Savor your bright vitality while you can. Wear loud clothes, experiment with your hair, sing at full volume. You’ll grow up all too soon.

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I am biased. When it comes to you, there is only radiant pride. I can’t protect you from missteps or the wounds left by others, although I would if I could. I can only remind you that I love you. I am your biggest fan. Please, dear Rory, as you grow, be brave, be fierce, and let your every smile reveal the light in your soul.

© Julia Moris-Hartley, 2014

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Go, Daddy, Go!

This story of abundance begins two hours away, at a freshwater reservoir in north-central Utah, where, on a summer night, crayfish emerge from sandy soil and are easily caught between a net and a bright flashlight. Two hunting methods prevail. Shine a light in shallow waters where crayfish dwell and either: position a net behind them to catch them as their abdominal muscles (i.e. the delicious “tails” we seek to eat) furiously backpedal, or position yourself to pluck them by hand, one by one, writhing, in tact, as they slowly maneuver forward. Toss them quickly into ice coolers waiting nearby.

 

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Crayfish in wait.

Genetic cousins to insects, crayfish (also known as crawfish or crawdads) are crustaceans that have proliferated as a species for millions of years. Sturdy exoskeletons and an instinctual affinity for the dark have encouraged their success. To their detriment, their sexy abdomens: humanity’s temptation.

In the intervening hours after catching crayfish, and prior to boiling the crayfish in restaurant-sized pots situated on heat sources of your choosing, encourage the little bugs to purge the mud and flatworms from their digestive tracts by submerging them in a series of cleansing salt-and-ice-water baths, each of which should grow successively less murky as the purging progresses. Crayfish, like other crustaceans, have evolved to self-metabolize at death; their digestive enzymes quickly begin breaking down the very muscle tissue prized by food enthusiasts, so be sure to keep them very cold and cook them quickly.

At cooking time, aim for maximum output and minimal clean-up. Our hosts, Kurt and Maggi, set out vinyl tablecloths topped with newspaper and mason jars filled with fresh flowers (the former for practical disposal, the latter for aesthetic pleasure). Maggi and Kurt invited all guests to contribute their lot of corn-on-the-cobs, red potatoes, sausages, and butter. Kurt graciously incorporated all of our ingredients into a crayfish boil, extending the haul – with generous sprinklings of Old Bay – to a lavish backyard feast. Maggi adorned each table with bowls of hot, melted butter for dipping.

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The art of eating involves tactile education, which many guests received together, under Kurt and Maggi’s tutelage. With their guidance we learned to twist and snap the abdomens away from the upper bodies, and to grasp the middle tail fins in order to pull out the digestive tracts cleanly. (These are filled, mostly, with sandy debris.) Once accomplished, we smashed the protective abdominal shells in order to harvest the silken meat. Crunchy orange confetti, small enough to be overlooked, signify females and their roe. That weird green stuff under the spindly legs? Probably related to the tomalley in lobsters, crayfish’s bigger, saltwater relative: sometimes used as a flavorant, but deleterious to leave in tact, for its self-destructive tendencies. Should we eat the claws or the heads, as we’d seen on television? Yes, we could, crunching their shells in our teeth – we found them briny, but less abundant than the abdomens, which yielded fleshy stores about the same size as small-to-medium shrimp.

Seafood boils have roots in the coastal regions of the southern United States, but they vary in history, geography, and name: clam bakes, shrimp boils, low country boils, etc. Boils flourish in ice coolers (excellent insulators for temperature extremes); in cast iron pots or Dutch ovens; on the stove; on the grill; and in any place the human initiative seeks to celebrate the bounty provided by the natural world. For us, it was central Utah on a random July night with gas stoves in a friend’s backyard.

James Beard wrote fondly of the crayfish boils of his Oregon youth. “If you can find or order crayfish in your locality,” he wrote, “they are something to hail with joy and treat with reverence.” He cooked his in court bouillon; we cooked ours in water and Old Bay, but I like to think that, over two nights and in our very small scale, we joined Beard in spirit, hailing in joy over a delicious feast.

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© Julia Moris-Hartley, 2014

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Morphine

Relentless suitor, you courted me four years ago with ruinous largesse: eleven deaths in eighteen months… and, good lord, the aftershocks. You changed me, scraping me raw, wiping friends and loved ones from my spare landscape as if they were loose pebbles. I’d lived many deathless years before our intimate, thorough affair. When you left, I did not miss you. I thought I’d quit you, at least for a while, but here you are again, purring at the door.

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Julia, have you seen the news? It’s Randy. He’s been in an awful accident… I saw the news. A drunk driver claimed the life of my college employer. I read and reread each piece of the accident’s coverage. Words and letters jumbled into a language I didn’t want to understand. I rested my head on the table for a long while, ears roaring, temples throbbing. Hot tears pooled on the smooth, cool wood.

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I hate condolence cards. I have a collection of cards, emails, news articles, and journal entries from my mother’s death. I wrapped my little mausoleum in silken gold ribbon, storing it high on my bookshelf. At the time she died, those correspondences were precious doses of emotional morphine, and I am as grateful for them today as I was four years ago. Every now and then, though, I gather the cherished golden bundle in my arms and bite back rage, because it lacks the one thing my sister and I wanted most after our mother’s sudden demise: an apology from the man whose vehicle struck her.

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Dear Sally, I was shocked to learn of Randy’s death. I am so very sorry. You and James have been in my thoughts and prayers all week. I am heartbroken. Please call on me if there is anything at all I can do to help you during this terrible time. With much love, Julia. See what I mean about condolences? No matter how sincere the intent or how profound the disbelief, ultimately they are just words on a page.

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Losing mom made me realize that there are two types of people: those who have experienced loss and those who have yet to. Neither camp is appealing, though a visit to both is inevitable. For a brief period, death notices became so commonplace that I started to believe that the universe had recruited me to be its death coach, so that I could offer my unique spin on surviving harrowing loss. Page 1 of Julia’s Macabre Death Aphorisms: Do whatever you have to do to pull through. Page 38: Resist the overwhelming urge to make out with the doctor who shows you kindness. Page 127: When in doubt, say you’re sorry.

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Death is an illusionist who makes surprise appearances at unlikely events. Once you’ve met him, it’s hard to avoid tracking him, following him as he surveys the room, measuring up his next victim. He demands acknowledgment, and is perhaps the most notorious of all public figures. Death makes the front page everyday.

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I’ve spent many nights in Death’s company, wallowing in his merciful analgesic thrall. How many times have I thanked him that my mother wasn’t around to experience the world events that would have unhinged her? Hurricanes Irene and Sandy, Japan’s nuclear catastrophe, rogue gunmen shooting children in schools, the political unraveling of her home country… She would have sickened herself: physically, mentally, or both. I rally against Death, but he is simultaneously an enemy and a friend. Our discomfiting relationship continues.

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You forced a new vocabulary on me: irreparable brain damage, hemorrhage, respirator, intensive care unit, hospice, funeral, burial, grief counseling… I could have lived my entire life without learning these words. You dimmed my days with the promise that our dark dalliances will only increase in frequency as time progresses. Four years ago, you left a broken hull to rot in the dirt. I recovered, just enough. I hear you whispering out there, but I won’t let you in.

© Julia Moris-Hartley, 2014

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