Earth Mother

May 31, 2010

Muffin warm and basket brown
Smiling faces gathered
Round our dinner table  . . .

I always cook with honey
To sweeten up the night
We always cook with honey
Tell me, how’s your appetite
For some sweet love
— Judy Collins, b. 1939
               American singer-songwriter

The car is the only place I listen to the radio these days, and I was in it a lot today, going hither and thither. All three stations I listen to were celebrating “the unofficial start of summer” with summer-themed playlists. I heard a lot of songs I like and associate with summer, but not the ones that are idiosyncratic to my summer experience. For example, I never hear “Sukiyaki,” the popular title (probably because it and Sayonara are the only Japanese words most Americans know) or “Ue o muite arukō (I shall walk looking up),” a song I heard almost every day in the summer of 1963, the summer after tenth grade, the summer I worked at Woolworth’s and whose actual lyrics and meaning I did not know until I just now looked it up on Wikipedia. And anything from Carly Simon’s 1971 eponymous debut album, particularly “That’s the Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be.” And Judy Collins’s “Cook With Honey,” from 1973.

Although it came later, I associate the cook with honey song with the person I was in 1971.  Recalling those days, I wrote in my paper journal in 2006:

The summer of 1971 I remember as the Earth Mother summer, in my new apartment with the big windows that looked out on a sloping lawn and a thick stand of firs beyond. The kitchen had no natural light but the separate dining room was spacious.

For six weeks I taught summer school in the mornings – simple short stories and grammar lessons to teenagers who’d failed regular English the year before not because they were stupid but because they were bored, indifferent, lazy maybe, acting out or holding in.

In the afternoons I cooked or baked – six kinds of brownies from a Woman’s Day article, pork chops and poached pears, coarse white bread with Ceresota Unbleached Forever flour and turbinado sugar. I did needlework while I watched Days of Our Lives and Another World – a blue and white coverlet I never finished, an oatmeal-colored sweater that I did and wore for years afterward.

Three nights a week I went to class at Old HACC to get three credits toward permanent certification – basic philosophy, Decartes, Kant, Sartre. Our basic text was Antony Flew’s An Introduction to Western Philosophy, then brand new, still in print in several subsequent editions and described by many users as “not for the novice,” “turgid,” and “dense.” I certainly found it so. I was in way over my  head intellectually. In my own way I was as bored and indifferent as my summer school students, there not for the love of learning but to amass certified time-in-the-chair.

Wednesday nights I was at home and heard the whine and drone of radio-controlled model airplanes from the vacant lot along 322 down the hill beyond the trees. Saturday nights [the man described here] and I went to dinner at Ummie’s for crab cakes or stuffed flounder, and afterward had sex (looking back, I cannot call it making love) in a sort of staid and civilized fashion – no thrills, he said to me when we broke up. He felt no thrills.

“Give this summer to Brenda,” I wrote in the margins of that notebook. Brenda is the main character of Perpetual Light, the novel I keep working on, and until a few weeks ago, I really didn’t know her very well. She was a type and not a fully-developed person. I have spent the last three weeks developing her, understanding her place in the novel, puzzling out her relationships with other characters, developing those other characters as well.

The first time we see Brenda in the novel, she is baking bread, a Greek holiday bread she’s fixing to please her Greek-American boyfriend, whose family she is about to make the acquaintance of. Because of the “change bomb” (the term one of my mentors uses for the inciting event that makes the story happen), that bread will not be finished, and she will not make the trip that both he and she had planned, that her Earth Mother summer was apparently leading up to.

I feel another Earth Mother summer coming on for me, a time to get in touch with both my nurturing and my sensual self. Today I baked chocolate chip cookies, triggered by a memory of my first solo batch, mixed up on Memorial Day of 1961 when, for reasons I cannot now even imagine, I was allowed to stay home alone instead of accompany my parents “up home” to the cemetery for Decoration Day. I also fixed a big batch of Thai cucumber salad, a concoction of cucumbers, onion, rice vinegar, and sugar that says summer is really here. Tomorrow I’m getting a mango for mango raita over roasted sweet potato.

I have put my character in the same situation I was in 1971, longing for something she doesn’t quite know how to get. In some ways, I am in that same place again, knowing what I want for myself, for the people I love, and for my work, but not quite sure how to get from here to there, nor even if that trip is possible.

I have ten weeks until I leave for Vermont and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. In 1971 I didn’t know what a mango was nor anything about Thailand except that it was the modern name for Siam, and I’d never been to Vermont. I wasn’t writing anything, and the only thing I remember reading was James Dickey’s Deliverance, primarily because a fellow teacher whose first language was Spanish, who had to read the book for a graduate class, was having trouble understanding the culture portrayed, and had asked me to help her.

I’m better-educated and more self-aware now. I have Ceresota Unbleached Forever flour and turbinado sugar in the pantry, and I’m ready to move through a summer of self-discovery, both for my characters and for me. I have books to read, a novel to complete another 40,000 words of, and a nonfiction essay about food to create. My appetite for some sweet love is ripe.

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