all poems and photographs
© by Maya Stein

all poems and photographs
© by Maya Stein
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Tuesday, July 01, 2008

abandoning the map or a lesson in hunger

The first thing to do when one is given the instruction of making a map in which freedom is in the center is, of course, to abandon the act of mapmaking. Instead, you snap on your coat and head outdoors, where, as if on cue, the sun reveals itself in full, offering a clear and bright view along the road.

Suddenly, you are full of choices – up or down, along one of the side streets, to stand in a single spot for an hour, to bring in firewood, to attempt communion with the birds, to play with the dog you heard barking earlier, to investigate the metaphor of the waterfall, to gather pinecones, to shell cashews creekside, to drive to the cafĂ©, to take a nap. What you feel most immediately is a sense of relief for having shaken yourself of any task. If you are sure of anything at all, it’s that you’ve left your art supplies at home for a reason. What you are looking for is a connection to that which is without words, without signs, or maps. Even if you are someone who deals in words, who appreciates the directional value of signs and maps, even if you are word maker, a sign seeker, a map checker. Even if you believe in the wisdom of understanding the world through these instruments of navigation, you are nevertheless looking elsewhere. You are looking for a different kind of navigation. You are looking at your hands. You are looking at your stomach. You are considering the relationship between the hands and the stomach. You are considering the relationship between your hands and your stomach.

This is what you know: the recipe you’ve memorized for French crepes. That you can whip up a meal even when the pantry is near bare. That the smell of onions doing a slow sautĂ© in olive oil is like manna. That when you move toward a ripe slice of heirloom tomato, something precise, ancient, sexual, elemental, rises out of you in a curl of longing. That when you slice into a lemon, you are releasing what was hidden in that lemon. That a swirl of cream in a cup of hot coffee can bring you back to center.

This is also what you know: that a measuring cup is restrictive, a shot glass stingy. That you shrink back at the words “I’d better not.” That something in you turns sour at the mention of a diet. You want to put giant dollops of mashed potatoes into the palms of women critical of the size of their thighs. You want to spread their fingers with homemade frosting. You want to throw away their mirrors. You want to return them to all the tables they ever excused themselves from.

When you were 10, you spent a whole afternoon making cookies for your mother, taking loose instruction from Better Homes and Gardens while exploring the further reaches of the pantry. She was napping, along with your baby brother, and you were thrilled at the surprise she would wake up to, the warm bakery smell coming from an oven filled with treats. She was dieting at the time, trying to rid herself of 25 pounds of leftover pregnancy, and had subjected the family to anemic dinners of boiled chicken and brown rice, your own school lunches an embarrassing disaster, and though you understood – at least in a rudimentary sense – the parameters of this regime – you were nevertheless determined to fashion something which she couldn’t refuse.

You did not know about baking. You didn’t know about the chemical precision of a recipe, or didn’t care, and so you chose the ingredients that sounded the healthiest, that gave the cookies dimension, some new vitality and worth. You wanted to do something for your mother. You wanted to make something for which no precedent had been set, and for which you would earn praise, a higher rank than your sister, some standing in the family.

You misunderstood the challenge. Or, you were unwilling to bend to the rules of a recipe that left alone would have been sufficient. You wanted to leave a mark. By the time your mother woke up, the house had the mulchy aroma of burnt cinnamon and rolled oats. The kitchen counters were embedded with the hard edges of your creation, the floor sawdusted with flour. A saucepan encrusted with chocolate. In the trash, five dozen sacrifices.

At 22, traveling solo through eastern Australia, it never occurred to you to pack Mace. In your luggage, instead, a packet of lemon pepper, a miniature shaker of seasoned salt.

The moment you walk into the photo studio, you regret your agreement of lunch. Or you should have charged more. You look at these people in their pressed clothes and tight buns of hair and know they will not understand what you’ve given them. They will chew and swallow and forget entirely. And yet you deliver the meal with gusto, rolling out the red carpet of carrot-ginger soup and cornbread, a large green platter spilling over with greens and fresh corn and radish, two square plates on which sit two flourless chocolate cakes which even you had to resist breaking into. What’s more, you’ve gone so far as to make signs, reined in your chicken-scratch handwriting into half-graceful print, thinking they would serve the dual purpose of information and aesthetic, but now this last small act of generosity embarrasses you. You are trying to impress the unimpressable. They barely acknowledge you or your serving ware, and why you thought they’d delight at the green floral tablecloth from William-Sonoma you don’t remember. All you can think about is how last night you held the knife so surely against the carrots, nicking not even a fingernail, and how no one will ever know.

You know that the moment you fall out of love, your stomach goes south. It doesn’t matter the self-nourishment you gift yourself, takeout dinners in front of the television, sprawling dinner parties with friends, breakfast for a week from Boogaloo’s or Zazie, you will, soon after the intake, feel the tremor in your gut, the mean tear in your bowels, and the ugly truth will present itself in the porcelain. You used to think it was something truly nefarious, like cancer, until you dug a little and found a few less deadly options – Crohn’s Disease, Irritable Bowel Syndrome – to explain such hasty and violent evacuation. Now, of course, you know it is something more deeply cellular, something beyond the map written in the blood of the body, a tiny fissure in the heart capable of all this trouble. You wonder, conversely, if staying in love will make you plump, pause you permanently at some great trough, eating and eating and eating until you forget how to stop.

What is an act of ferocity? hunger
What is an act of silence? hunger
What is an act of grace? hunger

1 comment:

GailNHB said...

It has been far too long since I have come here to read your poetry. Too long.

I LOVE THIS PIECE! The food, the diets, the cookies, the sacrifices in the garbage, olive oil, spices in your suitcase rather than mace, the agony of how love upsets the stomach and the appetite, heirloom tomatoes, all of it. I soooo wish I had taken you up on your offer to eat dinner at your house while I was out there.

And thank you for the reminder to not get so caught up in the size of my thighs or the number on the scale. Eat, drink, be merry. Enjoy without regret every meal. Slathered in frosting and mashed potatoes.

Wonderfully worded!