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’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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.