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’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.

Love Letter to Myself at 14

“Every man has his secret sorrows which the world knows not; and often times we call a man cold when he is only sad.” – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

1. Saved

When I was seven, my family and I started going to a big Baptist church in our little town, and I was told I needed to be saved. This was easily remedied: walk down an aisle in front of my Sunday school class, pray a specific prayer, and then you’re in. If I did this, I would go to heaven instead of hell when I died.

Only problem was, I had never thought I wasn’t going to heaven. I had always loved God. All my life. I never started believing in God. I didn’t even really understand the concept of “believing in” God. I didn’t “believe in” my parents. They just were. And so was God. Since I was a toddler, I had loved God, and He loved me. He was close to me. I was special to Him. I never questioned this. This was my reality, this was who I was.

Until I was seven. I had never said any specific prayer, had never “asked God into my heart.” I asked my parents over dinner one night if you would go to hell if you died before you said the prayer. There was a little pond a few streets over from my house, and there was an alligator that lived there. I thought of that alligator then. I thought of being pulled into the lake and never coming out. It seemed to me the most likely way I could die.

I can’t remember their answer, but I do remember that the more we went to that church, the more I realized that I was in the hell crowd because I’d not said the prayer. So, one night I asked my mom to pray it with me, and I did, I fulfilled the requirements, got myself on the heaven list.

And felt—somewhere deep inside—betrayed by God. I had loved Him all my life, but my eternal destiny was decided not by Him, but by a stupid prayer. If I hadn’t said those words that night, He would have sent me to hell.

2. Middle School

In seventh grade, I lost my best friend. She had been ushered into the “popular crowd” and there was no room in her life for me. Nothing about me was cool. My frizzy, uncontrollable hair, my big glasses, my sense of style—I wore baggy clothes, vests, long beaded necklaces, bright colors. Nothing about me matched. Most of my clothes came from thrift stores. I had not yet realized how important clothes were in how people treated you, had no sense of the importance of appearance. I was who I was. But when my best friend—who had been closer than a sister since first grade—stopped returning my calls, started pretending I didn’t exist, when that happened, I needed to find out what happened. And how to fix it.

And that meant fixing me.

3. Live Wire

I’ve always felt like a wire without its casing. I felt everything too much. Happiness was elation. Sadness was deep depression. There wasn’t anything in the middle. I was all extremes. Everything about me was sensitive, and I felt everything with a depth and a suddenness that I only later realized not everyone felt.

4. What You Learned in High School

This is what you are learning: that there are two of you, the person people see and the person you are.

You read your Bible. You memorized every verse for Sunday school. You always had the right answer. Once, you won a new Bible in some church contest. Its binding was stiff, and your Sunday school teacher remarked, in front of the other girls, that knowing you, you’d soon have it worn and creased.

After middle school, you changed your hairstyle. You wore different clothes. You started wearing makeup. You maintained status as teacher’s pet. You played piano at church.

You started watching what you ate. You got rid of all that baby fat.

You felt strong when you were hungry. It meant you were in control. It meant you were making the decisions. It meant you were invincible. You didn’t need anyone, you couldn’t be hurt, you didn’t need anything—you didn’t even need to eat. Desire was the enemy, and you were winning.

You were always alone, even when you were surrounded by friends. The real you—the inside you—was always alone.

5. Surfacing

In college, I started writing about my eating disorder. The fog of my adolescent depression began to lift, and I found other ways of being in control, of mastering my destiny. I became busy. Every hour of the day was scheduled. I made straight A’s. I was president of the English honors club. I made good friends and fell in love with food again. It felt like waking up.

6. Love Letter

Sometimes, I wish I could talk to myself at age fourteen. I wish I could take that girl by the hand and tell her not to change herself for anyone. I wish I could tell her that by the time she was thirty, she really wouldn’t care about anyone who had been in the popular crowd in high school. I wish I could tell her that her value was inherent, was integral—it was always there, God had always loved her, she had always been what she needed to be, in every moment, just what she needed to be. And it has nothing to do with what words you said and when, what clothes you wore, what you weigh.

If only I could tell her those things.

For years, I have either tried to forget I was ever that person, that sad little girl, or I have taken pride in how I had changed, how I had conquered my eating disorder, how I had gone from starving myself to taking great joy in preparing food. I pitied my former self and was glad I was no longer that person. I learned to harness the sensitivity and make it work for me. I wrote and wrote and wrote and found that vulnerability could be power when it found its way onto the page.

Now, instead of rejecting my old self, I am learning to embrace her. I love that little girl, the one who felt too much, who overanalyzed everything. The sensitive girl who wanted to be loved.

And I am beginning to realize that there is no “if” in the statement “If I could tell her.” Because though I am older now, I am still her, I am still that girl, and though I know a whole lot more about depression now than I did then, and though I’ve learned a lot about true friendship, and though I know a lot more theology than I did then, I am still myself, will always be myself. I carry around my former selves, because none of them are really former, not really.

7. Pudding

I don’t know if I can explain the connection here. The thread that connects pudding to learning to love myself. I won’t try too hard, as I run the risk of making this seem silly.

I will say, however, that I love to make myself this pudding (raw, vegan avocado chocolate pudding) by Laura Miller, and to me it feels like a gift, a way of nourishing myself, of giving my body something good. I will never diet again, will never restrict my food the way I did when I was young; though some could see this as a “diet food” because it’s raw and vegan, I don’t see it that way at all. I think of the avocados and the way they’re good for my heart and brain, the way they prevent cancer.

The pudding’s full of vitamins, nutrients, all that good stuff, it’s a little present, a little comforting package that says, hello, you are not just fine the way you are, you are not just acceptable, you are beautiful. 

Whatever We May Lose

It has been seventeen years since my family emigrated from Romania, leaving behind all that was familiar and simple, for a country where, we believed, milk and honey flowed unabashedly. Where material prosperity would mean generosity of spirit.  Where celebration would be the course of every day reality.  In some ways we have found it to be so, although the initial disenchantment that follows all desired things inevitably came, and had to be embraced. And in the embracing of that, we found a new home. But this is a story for another time…. 

Of the many things my adolescent self didn’t anticipate, longing was the most surprising of all, longing for what had been the only home I knew. A place where poverty and plenty intersected in bizarre and beautiful ways. A place where the queues for milk or bread were hours long, where butter and bananas were luxury, but where the summer markets spilled over with sour cherries, radishes the brightest fuchsia, watermelon so sweet it made the brain hum with happiness. I loved the markets as a child, the toothless women selling bunches of spinach and spring onions, lily-of-the-valley bouquets. I loved the voices of people haggling for tomatoes the size of cantaloupes, arguing over whose blackberries were the ripest, and I would sneak away with the boon of a wild strawberry to satisfy my never-ending child hunger.

After the markets came the best part: my mother magically turning what I saw as disparate ingredients into beloved dishes. Stews with bright vegetables and sparing meat, to which my father would add red or green chilies for a bit of burn. Soups finished off with luscious dollops of sour cream, dill or parsley. 

On the weekends, my mom would ask what we were craving, and my predictable answer was potatoes or matzoh ball soup (yes, I was strange little kid). 

Though childhood has now slipped, and the mother country has faded a bit into the stuff of stories, the longing for its familiarity still catches me unawares. I turn a corner sometimes and smell bread baking, and I am in Iasi again, walking home after waiting in line, clutching a plastic bag which is slightly melting from the heat of fresh bread. 

Or I walk into my parents’ now house in a quiet suburb of Charlotte, and for a moment I am back home, where my mother’s golden head is bent over a pot of steaming soup, and her voice exclaims in delight that the spherical matzos are weightless as clouds. I sit at the table, and turn eleven again, asking for seconds and thirds, not worrying about calories or nutritional value, but intoxicated with this moment where my soul and body become satiated, before the hunger sets in again.

I make this soup for my husband, for my friends, some of which don’t know where Romania is on a map, but who eat this cross cultural dish, and for a few minutes share in a small thread of my childhood, and whatever I thought was lost, comes back to me fuller, sweeter, and more complicated than before. 

Smitten Kitchen has a gorgeous matzoh ball soup recipe here which, from all the ones I’ve researched, comes the closest to my mother’s.

To crave and to have are as like as a thing and its shadow. For when does a berry break upon the tongue as sweetly as when one longs to taste it, and when is the taste refracted into so many hues and savors of ripeness and earth, and when do our senses know any thing so utterly as when we lack it? And here again is a foreshadowing — the world will be made whole. For to wish for a hand on one’s hair is all but to feel it. So whatever we may lose, very craving gives it back to us again.
 –Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping

“I still think that one of the pleasantest of all emotions is to know that I, I with my brain and my hands, have nourished my beloved few, that I have concocted a stew or a story, a rarity or a plain dish, to sustain them truly against the hungers of the world.” M.F.K. Fisher