Mythos and Wanderlust

wan·der·lust [won-der-luhst]: noun a strong, innate desire to rovetravel about, or explore the world

I am a nomad by nature. Though I like to think that once I find a place that suits my temperament, I will attach myself with the quiet persistence of a root’s first tendril, dig deep, resist removal, I am still afraid. Afraid that in the end, something in me will stir, an echo of something, a longing, which can only be quieted by relocation. And I will follow it.

I’ve inherited this from my father, who cannot settle in one place for too long. It’s like some internal music shifts, and he is ready to go as if in search of some impossible harmony. Father charging ahead, mother and sisters, cats and suitcases in tow. I understand the impulse, and try to resist it. I’ve already lived in seven cities in the last seventeen years, which has to be some kind of a track record. Of course, intertwined with the adventure, the kind of enchantment that a new place holds, there is always the loss. I now have friends in so many states that I have stopped counting, California to DC, Michigan to Florida. I’ve said good-bye enough that the words are rendered completely meaningless. And I am not one to untangle myself with grace and finality from people and relationships. To me, they are all so necessary, in their unique joys and complications. I am not good at letting go, though I am ever so good at letting go.

 

It’s paradoxical really, that I should long for relocation (for a constant shift in place, because who I am, my creativity, my joy is linked to my location), when my life anchors itself with such determination in friendships.  I feel quite envious when people refer to “my best friend, we’ve known each other since we were four.” I cannot imagine how it must feel – all that shared history, shared space, change, the intertwining of formative experiences. How weighty and wonderful.

 

I think of what C.S. Lewis referred to as mythos, that thread of kindred spirit-ness that runs through all the books, and landscapes, music, pastimes that one loves, and the times when one discovers another who loves the very same things, not for different reasons, but for that same unarticulated reason that we do! How rare and beautiful to find such people. Who understand. Whom you can understand. I used to think that because I’ve moved so many times that this experience would elude me. That my two and three year stints in different cities would make this shared mythos an impossibility.

 

And yet, my life overflows with friendship, though some of my dearest people continue to live far, far away. But perhaps, here lies the secret. To nurture a relationship where proximity is not the daily fare, where popping in for a press of coffee and advice is impossible – that takes desire. And whatever is fueled by desire instead of obligation, whatever we choose freely is the most life-giving, grounding, joyful thing in the world. So I embrace the distance, I embrace the possibility of new locations and new people.

For my friends and dear ones who read this, who have stuck with me through my years of wandering, I love you evermore. And to Darren, my husband of less than two years, my built-in best friend – I am relieved that if we move, we move together, and if we stay, we stay because we want to. I have grown to love the quiet simplicity of a Sunday, where we go to the farmer’s market and try artisanal cheeses and breads and prosciutto, where you teach me photography, where we can read quietly for hours, side by side. The wanderer in me grows happy and quiet in this routine.

Today was such a day. We made brunch together – gluten free pancakes with dark chocolate, bananas and pecans. We topped them with ghee, raw honey, and blackberries; and as an accompaniment, a very robust Bolivian coffee with coconut cream. We opened the French doors, let sun and wind and dust come in, let our curtains flutter, let our home be infused by new scents and sounds, stories of far away places. And I am content to imagine. For now.

The basic recipe for the pancakes can be found here. I added a tablespoon of cacao and chunks of dark chocolate for a bit of thrill. 

Mythos: Are not all lifelong friendships born at the moment when at last you meet another human being who has some inkling (but faint and uncertain even in the best) of that something which you were born desiring, and which, beneath the flux of other desires and in all the momentary silences between the louder passions, night and day, year by year, from childhood to old age, you are looking for, watching for, listening for?” C.S. Lewis

Eating Cuban Food for Tom’s 63rd Birthday

In the early 1970s, Tom—fresh from a divorce—planned to move to California. Start over. Get a change of scenery. A fresh start. But before he left New Jersey for the West Coast, he decided to fly to Florida for a visit to some friends who lived in Ft. Lauderdale.

Three days after he arrived, he happened to land a job as a DJ in the Library Discotheque at the Hilton hotel. Their DJ had just left, and Tom had owned a record store back in Jersey, so he knew a thing or two about music. The job was his.

Only thing was, he wouldn’t play disco. He just played music he liked. Which wasn’t disco. It shouldn’t have worked—this was the height of the disco era—but it did. The dance floor was packed every night. Tom and the disco’s manager used to bet money on whether Tom could get people dancing. And Tom would win. Every time. But he refused to play disco. 

Tom was like that.

Tom and his high school sweetheart and first wife, Lynn. 
Tom and his high school sweetheart and first wife, Lynn. 

Tom was a high school football quarterback, an avid surfer, a record store owner, a natural leader, a brilliant man who always found a way to make things work. Even thing that shouldn’t work. 

At the disco, he met a waitress called Chicken. After a season in Ft. Lauderdale, they moved together to Key West. Tom and Chicken didn’t last, but so began a love affair with the Keys that would continue the rest of his life.

There was something about Key West that captivated Tom.

And I can understand why.

Key West isn’t like anywhere else I’ve been. It has the funkiness of San Francisco, the irreverence, without the edge. The tropical air is sweet. Everything is colorful—the fuchsia bougainvillea, the turquoise water, the brilliant oranges of the sunset. Every day, people celebrate the sunset in Mallory Square, where you can watch cats jump through hoops of fire and men walk tightropes. And of course the Cuban food there is amazing—the fried plantains, the black beans, the Cuban sandwiches and Cuban mixes. The café con leche. The flan. 

Roosters walk the streets, strutting, causing cars to stop and wait.

Hemingway lived there, in the Conch Republic. Some say that Tennessee Williams wrote a draft of A Streetcar Named Desire in Key West. There’s magic there, in the island closer to Cuba than to Miami.

It was in Key West that Tom and Vicki met. He was working as a project engineer for the Lower Keys Bridges Project, and Vicki had moved to the island to be with her sister, Terri. Vicki landed a job in the office where Tom worked. One day, she walked past an office where Tom was talking to someone. She caught his eye, and a voice in his head said, That’s the girl you’re going to marry.

Later that day, he asked her if she’d give him a ride home; his truck was in the shop. She agreed. On the way back, Tom asked her when they were going to go out together. She said she was dating someone else.

“That’s okay,” he said. “I can wait.”

And so he did.

That was summer. By the following January, they were married.

They left Key West—Tom had gotten a job at Kennedy Space Center, working on the shuttle program—but for the rest of their married life, they took regular visits. They brought the kids there, too, introducing them to the color of the water, the Plumeria-scented air, the Cuban food. And when Jesse and I started dating in high school, they’d take me along too.

In 2004, Jesse and I honeymooned in Key West, in a little bed and breakfast called the Mermaid and the Alligator. After we booked our room, we learned that Tom had once lived there, back when the building had been subdivided into apartments. It was a perfect little oasis—love birds and orchids and palms. Fresh papaya for breakfast. Juicy and sweet. The July heat was intense, but it was a heat we were used to. The sun kissed my bare shoulders, and it felt good.

Eight years later, in 2012, we spent the last weekend of Tom’s life on the island. He lay in a hammock on the beach, smoking a cigar and drinking a piña colada.

That weekend, we drank café con leche from 5 Brothers Grocery, ate Cuban sandwiches and plantain chips from Cuban Coffee Queen down near Mallory Square. We lay on the beach near Tom’s hammock, letting the sun warm us, letting it soak into our bones. We watched the waves gently kissing the sand. We squinted into the sun. We knew it was the last time. We knew it was Tom’s last visit. We knew it was the last time we would all be on this island together. It hurt. It hurt, but it was beautiful.

The next June, we took some of Tom’s ashes back to Key West in a Café Bustelo coffee can, per his wishes. We spread some of him under a palm tree on Higgs Beach and sprinkled some in the water. The day was bright and hot. I was sunburned by the afternoon. But the heat felt good, it felt restorative, as if something deep in me was being warmed again. From the beach we could see the hammocks we had been in that last weekend with Tom.

It was fitting. 

This past Monday was Tom’s birthday. He would have been sixty-three. So this weekend, I made Cuban food in memory of him. Ropa vieja, a shredded beef dish, his favorite, along with black beans and rice, fried plantains, flan. The food was good—the ropa vieja tangy and comforting, the flan sweet. It tasted like Key West, a little warmth and heat in the dead of winter. After snow and an ice storm in the past month, it felt good to eat Cuban food, eat the food of the Keys, the food we ate on our honeymoon, the food Tom ate all those years ago when he was falling in love with the island. When he was falling in love with his future wife. 

And he’ll always be there, on that island, and it will always be in us. The tropical smells, the goofy tourist shops, the hole-in-the-wall places with the best Cuban mixes, the sweet sweet coffee, the smell of sunscreen, the chickens in the road, the drunks at Sloppy Joe’s, the mopeds and the bleached white Catholic churches and the conch houses and the wet, humid air. All of it.

Ropa Vieja – adapted from GOYA

Ingredients:

2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
2 ½ lbs flank steak, cut into 3” x 4” pieces
Adobo with pepper
2 yellow onions, chopped finely
1 ½ – 2 green peppers, chopped finely
6 oz. Sofrito (I used GOYA, but you could certainly use homemade)
6 cloves garlic, chopped finely
1 packet GOYA Sazón with coriander and annatto (don’t skip this)
1 tsp beef “Better Than Bouillon” or 1 beef bouillon cube
¼ tsp black pepper
1 cup olives stuffed with pimientos, sliced
2 oz. capers, drained
1 Tbsp or more fresh cilantro, chopped

Directions:

1.     Heat oil in a large pot. Season beef with adobo and add to pot in batches until well browned. Transfer to a plate. Lower heat to medium. Add onions and peppers and cook until soft, about 10 minutes. Add Sofrito and garlic; cook for about a minute.

2.     Add 3 cups water, tomato sauce, Sazón, bouillon, and pepper. Bring to a boil. Return beef to pot. Lower heat to medium low and simmer, covered, for about 45 minutes, stirring occasionally. Stir in olives and capers. Cover pot; simmer another hour to an hour and a half, until meat shreds easily. (Add water if needed.)

3.     Remove meat and shred. Bring the sauce to a boil and add back shredded beef. Add cilantro and serve with white rice. 

We Open Windows

So much held in a heart in a lifetime. So much held in a heart in a day, an hour, a moment. We are utterly open with no one, in the end — not mother and father, not wife or husband, not lover, not child, not friend. We open windows to each but we live alone in the house of the heart.         – Brian Doyle

I.
I’ve lived in many places, Portland, San Francisco, Wilmington, Atlanta, and though they all hold charm, there is no place I have loved as much as Chicago. A city of silvered lines and sharp planes, a city of water, art, and snow. The first city in the States that holds a skyscraper designed by a woman, the Aqua building, which tour guides will tell you, is designed to resemble a woman’s body. The way it swelled and rippled like a green wave into the gathering clouds was breathtakingly beautiful, and as if I needed more, I fell in love even harder with the city.  

II.
I moved to Chicago for a man I was engaged to. I told myself I was moving for a job, for a change of scene, for that exquisite feeling when everything is new and fresh and you’ve made no mistakes. All of that was true, but in the end, I had to admit that it was for a man and later for the city itself, which drew me in with its brightness and energy, its nouveau-European feel. Six years have passed and I am happily married now to someone else who is wonderful and kind, who makes the grief of that season feel less and less real with each passing year. 

However, that period ignited within me an ache I think I will carry my entire life. I stayed in a relationship that was unhealthy for much longer than I should have. It would have been more loving to leave, but I bull-headedly pressed on. For so long, the thought of breaking an engagement felt like a personal failure, like I was admitting my own inability to discern what was good for me. I couldn’t bear that. So I stayed, and labored, and fought, and then stood aside and watched my carefully constructed world fall brick by brick. 

III.
After I broke the engagement, my love affair with the city continued.  I dug in my heels and stayed, seduced by its mystery and eccentricities, the food, the many languages I heard, high art and few streets away, walls covered in graffiti.  I began to live for the moments when the city would yield itself slowly, as I sat in cafés, watched throngs of people float by. Eight million lives. And the body made its own hum and whir in response to the cold. I became intoxicated with a newfound independence, with pride in my own strength and resilience. I stayed, though I was far away from my family and friends. I became obsessed with work, insular. I had myself, and a beautiful chestnut-haired dog for company, and that became enough. 

 It was much later that a friend gave name to that secret ache I covered with frenzied activity, social engagements, and elusive talk. It took so long to recognize and accept what was happening, because I would have never believed that depression would become my struggle. I had watched friends and some family members go through it; I had felt compassion, sympathy, distance. 

IV.

I don’t know whether this is normative or not, but for me the narrative of depression goes something like this:

1.    You’ve lost something essential that you cannot name. You just know it is gone.
2.   Some things are not a matter of faith, though you hear over and over again that if you had more faith you would be fine. 
3.   The easiest, most ordinary things become a burden.
4.   Everything is about some grand existential question, until you become tired. Then you stay tired for what feels like an eternity.
5.   Food loses aroma, feels like dust in the mouth. You wonder if you’ll ever take pleasure in anything again.
6.   It is you, a small buoy in vast, dark water. The stars are far, far away. And God feels even farther. 
7.   Prayer, meditation, wine, being out with friends, novels, birdsong, sunlight, Mozart, laughter, nothing helps. 

Until it does…

V. 
I eventually moved away, lived with my sister and brother for a while. In the end, that saved me. Being in their home where I was loved, I began to let silence enter my being, and in that silence I awakened to myself again, fragment by fragment. Saint Paul has a name for God so resonant, Kardiognostes from the Greek, which means the Heart-Knower. I like to believe that though it often feels that we are afflicted with a profound internal solitude, in fact, someone transcendent, loving, creative knows us. That He is as near as our next breath. 

 Though I still have seasons of ache and loss, I am better. Because in the silence, I discovered a very real essential living self. Because I am known, and I am loved. Because I have dear friends (yes, you Erin) who listen and understand, and identify with the struggle. Because my husband fills our home with white roses. Because I spend every other day with my sister and perfect niece. Because friends come and sit around my dining room table, eat the food I prepare, laugh, drink wine, tease me when my Romanian accent comes through. Because poetry, I’ve discovered, is not just on the page, but (to borrow from the language of the saints) in this kingdom of ordinary time.

VI. 
I chose pana cotta, because I knew this post would be difficult and scary to write, and I needed a little comfort. Because this is a brilliantly easy dessert, luscious, textured like silk, and pairs well with almost any kind of meal. But mostly, because it is a reminder that pleasure has been restored to me. That my soul can still feel joy. That living holds all the magic it did before, except maybe a little more, because now I know its fragility. 

Recipe for pana cotta from the marvelous Ina Garten can be found here.