Tag Archives: big dreams

Dear Julia Next Year

IMG_2111On the morning of May 29th, 2015, my cousin, a longtime supporter of my writing, sent me a message telling me that he missed me – Eater Provocateur, aspiring MFK Fisher 2.0, the woman and writer I dream to be. I did not have the chance to write him back or lament how much I missed me too. I’d planned to put together a book on Blurb this summer; I hoped to send off essays to journals. I was going to travel my small Utah world and write about the people and pioneers in local food production. I would take thousands of photos, and throw myself into research. After giving so much of my energy to my students, this was EP’s summer to shine.

Instead, that afternoon, I received a phone call from an emergency room in southern Utah, notifying me that my father had been admitted for a heart attack and possible stroke. The doctors could not stabilize Dad’s blood pressure, so they arranged for him to be airlifted to Salt Lake City. Not yet grasping the severity of Dad’s condition, I inquired whether I should drive to Salt Lake that evening or wait until the following day. They said, “Go now.” I went. CICU surgeons operated on his dissected heart throughout the night. Though the surgery successfully repaired the aortic tear, a scan the next morning revealed a massive stroke in Dad’s brain and no hope for recovery. He was, effectively, brain-dead. I hugged the hull of his body and authorized permission for the removal of life support. In the span of twenty-four hours, on a sunny day at the start of summer break, my father died.

*

In the intervening weeks, I learned more about my father than I ever wanted to. I scanned every credit card bill, finding pages and pages of online book purchases, and several unpaid balances. I sorted mortgage bills from utilities, three heavily indebted properties deep. I filled garbage bags with remnants of his last meals and pieces of his life that only held significance to him. I culled a biographical narrative of his youth from epistolary threads and salvaged forget-me-nots. But death is mainly business and arithmetic. In death, my father amasses a debt of $200,000 and rising.

My father was generous to a fault, and he attracted “friends” who found ways to manipulate and capitalize on his generosity. My siblings and I had often wondered why our tenured professor father lived like a pauper. Now we know – we have the calendar notations and check stubs to prove how he shared his salary with several others: current, past, or potential paramours; graduate students fallen down on their luck; renters he felt too guilty to ask for rent… and went so far as to pay their utilities to spare them from financial duress. Some of these “friends” received money from Dad for decades; one seemed especially distressed to learn that she would no longer be receiving handouts from Dad’s non-existent estate. Generosity was clearly Dad’s high.

It is not my intent to smear my father’s name, but I struggled with fury: at Dad for being such a tender-hearted idiot, and, moreover, at those who took advantage of his kindness. I will say that I did not hesitate to close accounts without notifying the parties waiting for their “paychecks.” I have also collected as much of their personal information as I can with the intent to press charges if the need arises.

As a counterbalance, I also learned that my father was loved and valued beyond measure by people who were not bleeding his bank accounts. Emails and letters poured in as news of Dad’s death reached farther and farther into his social and professional circles. All expressed genuine shock and concern; all were kind. The volume was overwhelming. I dreaded checking my email for fear of the inevitable raw and heartfelt messages within. In a way, after my mother’s laughable funeral attendance, it felt validating that so many people cared for my father, people who did not take advantage of his generosity but instead expressed their gratitude and devotion to him. I cannot remember which of these dispelled the fury, at least temporarily.

*

I still find it hard to drag myself out of bed. I do, but it takes a very long time and a lot of internal negotiation. My biggest motivations are letting the dog out and making breakfast for my family. I haven’t been running, though I know I should. I’ve been drinking too much, though I know I should not. My appetite is gone. But I believe that hope is slowly returning.

Over the weekend, I officiated Dad’s memorial service for the family. I did not pass out or collapse in grief. I held my chin high, kept my voice and my eyes level, and honored my Dad the way children must sometimes do.

I give Dad one hour each day: to make calls, to contest charges, to forward copies of his death certificate. His final affairs sit in a box by the piano; I can once again see the surface of my dining room table.

*

Dear Julia Next Year,

Remember that, at one time, you valued compassion and empathy. You will get that back.
Remember that letting go leads to freedom. Let go.
You will smile and laugh again. It will just take some time to recover.
You will not be – cannot remain – this cynical and foul-tempered. It is not healthy and it is not you.
One morning, you will wake up and want to run/cook/sing/dance/write/ be yourself again. The lengthy internal negotiations will shift from “Should I get out of bed?” to “Why shouldn’t I get out of bed?”
The murderous rage against those who manipulated your father will subside into peevish irritation and hopefully humor that cuts deep.
The world exists outside your door, and you are not done with it yet.
You stand with those who love life. So stand up.

© 2015, Julia Moris-Hartley

 

 

 

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Resolutions

A space of my own. Mostly.

Patience
Virginia Woolf espoused the notion that a woman needs a private space of her own in which to write.  Natalia Ginzburg writes that “the birth and development of a vocation needs space, space and silence.”  One of the biggest challenges that I face is finding the silence in which to concentrate and develop ideas for writing.  I don’t have an office or studio.  I live and work in the same location.   There are few private spaces in a house with an open, circular floor plan, which necessitates writing in unusual places, such as the bathroom or the garage.  I completed this essay in my son’s closet, as he and my daughter played on the Xbox downstairs.

My first task for the new year was to set up a writing station in the kitchen.  I hope its presence will act as a visual declaration to my family so that I do not have to once again reiterate: “I am at work.  Please do not disturb or distract me.  Every distraction you make detracts from my productivity and hinders my creative verve.”  I am aware that I sound like a jerk, particularly to my husband, who grew up accustomed to the stimulation of computers, gaming, and the steady ambient noise of two younger brothers and a garrulous dad.

For me, writing is like running: a compulsion that can only be satisfied when completed.  I get antsy when I can’t write.  Even a quick writing session is enough to soothe me.  I need to write.  It is not something I can do if you are sitting two feet away from me, fingers tapping furiously on your keyboard as you Google chat while listening to Rihanna on the fancy pancake-sized earphones you got for Christmas.  Je. Suis. Désolé.

*
Industry
I am blessed with friends who support my food habit.  My friend, Casey, is one such friend.  Casey is tall and statuesque, with long blond hair that she styles impeccably and a bright, encouraging smile.  She is the type of person who photographs well.  (I am not.)  She loves life and is usually the person laughing the loudest at a party.  Casey is the greatest personal ambassador I could hope for.

Last fall, Casey sponsored me on Mightybell so that I could develop a clearer strategy for achieving my writing goals.  After months of inactivity and a litany of daily emails urging me to “step up,” I finally logged on to answer various prompts about what I want from my career.  One of the prompts required me to write down my resolutions – all of them, no matter how absurd or unattainable. Though I generally eschew making resolutions because I get depressed when my resolve inevitably wanes, I made my list.  I did not hold back.  Here it is:

*Make myself indispensible to Jean Louis.
*Start the Park City chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier International. (Though I don’t live in Park City, the location offers me a larger, more knowledgeable group of potential members, with the added perk of getting to spend a lot more time there.)
*Get a working manuscript in order.
*Submit to the MFK Fisher essay competition.
*Eat more cheese.
*Cook more, preferably in the company of other people who like to cook.
*Write more, preferably in the sunlit silence of a newly created kitchen nook.
*Beg Jenni Ferrari-Adler to be my agent.

*
Abandon
My family spent the holidays in South Carolina.  We are all enthusiastic eaters, so most of our time together involved food and sampling new restaurants.  We even ventured to Atlanta, where we ate an unforgettable meal at the Six Feet Under Pub and Fish House on Memorial Drive, situated directly across the street from Atlanta’s historic Oakland Cemetery.

You know that warm feeling you get when you first realize you’re falling in love?  Or maybe that slight giddy high you feel after you complete a deadline that’s been stealing your sleep for weeks? This electrifying establishment reaffirmed my belief that culinary magic exists.

How else can I explain two generous appetizers – spicy ‘rat’ toes (bacon-wrapped jalapenos encasing a shrimp goodie) with a side of ranch dressing, and a combo of three soft tacos topped with fried calamari, blackened shrimp, and catfish, served with a garnish of a thick salsa verde – shared among four adults; a couple of Shock Top Heffs, an enormous mound of bite-sized fried alligator tail pieces, and a side of Killer Cole Slaw?  I’m a little gal, and that was just my dinner portion.  We also partook in generous samplings from each other: a spoonful (or eight) of shrimp and grits, and a taste (or several) of the fish stew, a medley of tomatoes, fennel, mussels, scallops, shrimp, and cod.  We all whined about how full we were.  We all did not stop shoveling it in, sighing and saying things like: “This is the most amazing thing I’ve eaten in a long time,” and “Why can’t I get food like this where I live?” and “Do you think they would hire me to just stand outside and stare in the windows longingly?”

*
Passion
I love cheese.  I just finished reading Gordon Edgar’s Cheesemonger, an informative book that I’d recommend to any fellow turophile.  The cheese area at Whole Foods is one of my happy places.  I like to sweep the display cases once, then double back to devote deeper attention to the arrangements of patterns and colors on display.  I love the variations in the colors of rinds: the deep eggplant against the milky white of the drunken goat; the buttery yellow gouda sealed in red wax; the grass green lettering on the white seal of slim wedges of nutty fontina val d’aosta.  My cells sing as I caress the wedges, relishing their smooth heft in my palm.  I hold them close to my face, studying their texture and unique bubbling.  I breathe them in.  Edgar’s book confirms that this sort of rapturous, proto-sexual behavior often occurs among his customers and acquaintances. “Any cheese worker will tell you that the cheese counter is often a place of flirtation,” writes Edgar.  “The smells and lusciousness of cheese bring out lust in people.  Cheese lends itself to hedonism and excess.” Cheese love is real.

*
Cardinal Virtues
Unfortunately, my family also had an unforgettable meal of another sort on our trip: at Cracker Barrel, of all places.  We arrived there at 11 o’clock on a sunny Monday.  Our waiter, Al, promptly took our table’s order, serving four biscuits and three little packages of jam to our table of six.  We were all very hungry, so we shared the four biscuits, thinking more would come soon.  We waited.  They did not come.  Ice popped in my water glass.  Country music piped from the speakers.  A crowd of customers stood in the foyer waiting to be seated; wafts of air tickled my cheeks as the hostesses seated people around us: talking, laughing, looking forward to biscuits. Al, a tall man of bear-like comportment, had somehow magically camouflaged his broad white shirt amidst the restaurant’s old-time tchotchkes, so we asked other servers to please bring us more biscuits and jam.  The biscuits didn’t arrive, but our food did.

Al reappeared, chucking three small packages of jam – but no biscuits – in my direction, strewing them across the table.  Did we need anything else?  Syrup, please, we said in unison, and a few more biscuits.  No syrup came.  No biscuits.  We asked Al again and the server who followed him: Please, could we have syrup and a few more biscuits?  When my soda ran low, Al refilled it – unbidden – from a juice glass, reaching directly over my head and spilling it onto my plate and the table.  Caramel brown fluid pooled under my perfectly runny yolks, forming a small carbonated swamp next to the cheesy hash browns.  We were still eating when Al began removing our plates.  He didn’t ask if we were finished.  He absconded with my son’s fork, my daughter’s water, and my brother’s grits.

Prudence: Since most of Al’s hostility seemed to be directed at me, perhaps he mistook me for a customer who had stiffed him recently.  People often mistake me for someone else.  Maybe the restaurant had received a smaller delivery of biscuits than they anticipated and management decreed a moratorium on biscuits that day.  There are any number of random, converging forces that might have caused the weirdness of that particular meal on that particular day.

Temperance: I asked a cashier for a comment card.  She informed me that the establishment didn’t have any.  Would I like to talk to a manager or leave a note?  The cashier adjacent to her suggested that I could post my comments online.  I smiled, thanking him, but informing him that the restaurant probably would not appreciate the comments I was poised to make at that moment.

Justice: I learned later that my mother-in-law had spoken with the manager as I wrote a note of complaint.

Fortitude: I respect servers – they are vehicles for deliciousness.  I tip well.  I refrain from making unnecessary food enemies.  It was right to complain about Al’s poor, unprofessional service.  None of this lessened the tremor in my hand as I enumerated the specific examples that comprised my complaint.

*
Aspirations
It’s important to have aspirations: small, easily achievable goals, like painting a wall in the kitchen or cleaning the litter box; and loftier, oversized dreams, such as collaborating on a cookbook with (and ultimately making myself indispensible to) a certain French restaurateur in Park City whose name rhymes with Pick Me!  Chances are Mr. Adorable doesn’t need my help, but what if he does?  What if, in stating my dream out loud, this chef is suddenly struck with an overwhelming desire to put out a cookbook?  Perhaps he’s always wanted to create one, but was hindered by time or linguistic constraints.  Perhaps he has stories he’s hoped to share with the world. He just might find it pleasing to see his face on the cover of a whimsical, yet well-written collection of recipes from his youth.  Aspirations hide in the unconscious until something (or someone) triggers them, and then suddenly they spring forth with trumpets and fanfare: Of course I want to do this!  Why haven’t I thought of doing this before?  I’m just saying, it doesn’t hurt anyone to dream big dreams.  Dreams are free.

*
Vision
“My vocation is to write and I have known this for a long time,” writes Ginzburg.  “When I sit down to write I feel extraordinarily at ease, and I move in an element which, it seems to me, I know extraordinarily well; I use tools that are familiar to me and they fit snugly in my hands.” I considered her sentiments as I made my list of resolutions.

Casey contributed a desk to my new space.  I painted the walls in purple, beige, and ivory stripes, and bought a celebratory rubber plant with fiery patterns of yellow and red to admire as I work.  An iron bell hangs over my head.  I’m going to ring it each time I complete an essay in a blissful sunlit spot of my very own.

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