This week is exam week, a.k.a. that time of year when survival is contingent upon an elaborate system of Post-It Note Lists, both tangible and virtual. To-Grade, To-Finish, To-Make, To-Buy, To-Write, To-Email, To-Plan, To-Watch, To-Return, To-Visit, To-Listen-To, To-Pay, To-Donate, To-Schedule, To-Bring, To-Do, To-Do, To-Do.
My flurry of notes and lists often serves to buffer me from the world outside of my little circle of concern—like, if I am busy being stressed out about how busy and stressed out I am, then I convince myself that I am excused from paying attention to other people’s despair and anger and sadness and pain, because “I just have so much going on this week.”
It’s not that I don’t legitimately have a lot going on—I do—but let’s be clear—the majority of it I brought upon myself. And also, I am going to survive it just fine. What’s really at stake here is my ability to hold onto myself and who I say I want to be, which is easy enough to do when the lists are short and the days are long. But when I get caught up in the shape of my own circumstances, I become a version of myself that I really do not enjoy being around (nor, I suspect, do other people). I become small and petty and stingy and grumpy and boring.
Another calendar year is about to come to an end, and if I’ve learned anything this year, it’s that I am a much better version of myself when I devote a considerable amount of brain space, time, and energy to people other than me. Being patient with my son. Practicing kindness with strangers. Trying to find ways to make someone’s life just a little bit easier, to let them know that they are seen, to acknowledge their suffering. Looking people in the eye. Calling them by name. Sending poems in the mail—for no reason, for every reason. Not acting rushed or checking my phone when a student wants to share with me or ask me for advice. Being fully present. Giving of myself. It may sound cheesy or small, and I certainly don’t meet the bar every day, but these are things I can do. And they make my lived experience so much more satisfying.
There’s science behind it, because of course there is. I listened to this On Being episode last month—an interview with Adam Grant, professor of psychology at Wharton who studies the effects of generosity in the workplace. Hearing him explain his research helped explain some of my own practices and habits, putting them in a context that served to make me more conscious about practicing generosity as a deliberate way of moving through the world.
As someone who works with teenagers, I am given regular reminders to practice what I preach: to work to not fall into that category of “hypocritical adult.” I believe in teaching literature as a way to cultivate empathy, and empathy—that soul-expanding practice of trying to imagine what someone else might be feeling—inevitably leads to generosity. It also builds perspective, like when Shiv had to have blood drawn for an allergy test last week and I had to hold him still while he squirmed and cried big hot tears and wailed “No, no, no!,” the fear bright in his cheeks and tense in his body, and I thought, How on earth do parents with chronically sick kids do this? And so much worse, and every day? Or to be unable to feed my child, to witness the pain of his hunger, and have to somehow explain to him why it is so. To travel as a refugee, through treacherous conditions, unable to protect my baby, uncertain of every future moment, met with derision and hate. These are hells that scale my to-do lists right back down to their appropriate size.
I hope to squeeze one more post in before 2016—I’ve been meaning to share Jill’s mama’s amazing cornbread recipe with you for ages now—but in the meantime, here’s (but of course) a list:
-You should make the Meyer Lemon Focaccia you see pictured here. (Isn’t it funny how, like, 8 years ago, none of us had even heard of Meyer lemons? Oh food blog internet explosion, how you’ve changed us.) Please note, if you plan to make this, that the dough needs to refrigerate at least overnight but up to 2 days, so it’s a great option for those of you who like to plan ahead. The actual baking/assembly comes together quickly, the recipe yields two smaller focaccias, presentation is lovely, flavors are bright; it’s a fine candidate for a holiday spread. I am planning to make this again on Sunday for our annual tree-trimming gathering, along with other appetizers, cookies, & champagne!
-The Bitter Southerner (which is so spot-on with its branding, consistency, & quality that it’s no wonder they have such a following) has put out its Best Southern Albums of 2015 List—I know, I know more lists. But I can’t wait to dive into this one. The 2014 version of this list yielded many hours of listening pleasure into the new year.
-For those of us with little people in their lives, or big people who love thoughtfully crafted and beautifully illustrated stories, this list of The Best Children’s Books of 2015 from Brain Pickings is a delightful read in itself, and it offers wonderful gift ideas to use now or tuck away for future use.
-Cookies I’ve got my eye on this year: cardamom pistachio cookies, chocolate puddle cookies, lebkuchen, nutmeg logs, Swedish rye cookies, whole wheat shortbread cookie. Food52 put together this very fun Cookies of the World Map, with 46 recipes, should you need further inspiration.
Tidings of comfort & joy, my friends! xo
Today is a hard day, I know. You said in a text message this morning that “[from] Diwali on is kind of rough,” and I know what you mean; though your grief is its own creature, it is a cousin to mine, and they both seem to show up on our doorsteps this time of year.
In July, it will have been ten years, a number that I’m struggling to wrap my mind around. Ten materializes the distance between the time when Papa was still in our lives and now. That stretch of ten contains so much: I finished grad school and started teaching, Jill fought cancer, we adopted Shiv, you retired and moved to Houston, to fully occupy the role of grandmother.
What can’t be measured but remains constant is Papa’s absence. Having to learn, unwillingly, to work around the blank space of him. Fearing that we would lose our sensory memories of him—his voice, his smile, his smell. Realizing that we have managed to live without him, somehow, a task that seemed so impossible and has now become routine. Is that supposed to feel like a victory? It doesn’t.
What I can feel good about is what we’ve done with ourselves, you and me, without him to referee us. There are times when I think to myself, Papa, we could use your help here!, but those are pretty rare, and I’m proud of us. He would be, too—I know that for certain. In those early days and weeks when he was gone but it didn’t seem real and it all had happened so fast and you went back to work (how?) but it was still summer for me and I could barely manage to shower each day let alone imagine a time when I would ever feel anything but completely devastated, it was hard to be around you. It was hard for you to be around me. That was an extra curveball, because usually we were pretty good at comforting each other (just as we were good at driving each other nuts), but when it comes to grief, the same rules never apply. You couldn’t stand for me to be sad. I couldn’t stand for you to be sad. You weren’t you without him. I wasn’t me without him. We weren’t us. There were supposed to be three.
I was so worried about you for so long, for all of those years between Papa leaving and Shiv arriving, worried about you alone in that big house, worried that I wasn’t visiting enough, worried that you would always sound terribly flat and far away and tired in your bones. I tried not to tell you when I was feeling sad, because that just seemed to make it worse. We didn’t know how to talk about him. We didn’t know what to say. So I wrote it all to Papa in letters instead.
Then I started to write my book, and so I needed to ask you questions, questions about meeting Papa for the first time and falling in love with him, questions about what it was like to learn to be married to a person you barely knew. He began to take shape again for me; I could close my eyes and see him, hear his voice. I asked you what he would think about certain things, and we would try to guess together. I learned how to make foods that he loved—many from you, some that I taught myself. We talked about what we missed the most, told each other (and were jealous!) when one of us had a dream in which he appeared. One day, I handed you the fat stack of letters that I had written him, and you read them.
Before Shiv came, you were so worried that he wouldn’t. You were so worried that something would go wrong—that “realist” streak of yours that Papa’s optimism always balanced out. And so, when that baby boy arrived in the world, we gave him the same initials as your husband—SCM—and you fell in love all over again.
This story is not some neatly balanced equation, of course; there is no fixing grief, only the changes in its shape and new points and edges to adjust to. Tonight, Shiv and I sat in your kitchen eating Vietnamese takeout, a weekday stop-gap anniversary celebration (we’ll do better this weekend, with a proper Italian sit-down meal of which Papa would have approved), and as he was getting sleepy, Shiv slid down from his chair and said, “Nani, hold you,” his signature phrase so sweet we all dread the inevitable switch of its pronouns. So you held him. And I thought, as I have many times before, what a gift it is to witness his fierce love for you, and the delight you take in him, and how not dissimilar your spoiling of him is to your spoiling of my dad.
And I wished, for the millionth time, that Papa could be here to see it.
I love you. So much.