17 October, 2008

Day Five (we knew it would come)

Sometimes it's good to have a day so unlike another day, except that they're both called randomly "Friday," that you really have to step back and ask yourself about continuity. Not to sound too precious (kick me if I do), but continuity of self is an odd thing, especially, to paraphrase the great short story writer Raymond Carver, if you have children. In fact, forget "children": I don't even need the plural to make my life feel occasionally quite schizophrenic. One child, plus everything else I want to do in this life, is quite sufficient to make me feel that my arms are being stretched in opposite directions. The person one is with a child and the person one is when said child is out of sight (and out of mind) are two very different people. Most of the time it's possible not to notice this disconnect because the fleeting no-child moments don't last very long. One has to learn to function on several levels at the same time (write all day, then it all ends at precisely 3:45 every day to be replaced with listening to tales of school inequities, etc, provide snack, find gym kit). One has to be ready to let go one's own thoughts on command. And this severing can sometimes seem to test the notion of identity at all. As Carver also said, "One of the things I learned is that I had to bend or else break. And I also learned that is possible to bend and break at the same time."

A bit chilling and dire sounding, I know. So not me! But at Totleigh I discovered what happens if the stretches of time one has to one's pre-parent self last for, say, Five Days, it's something a bit life-changing (my god, how British and deprecatory that sounds! "a bit life-changing" like "slightly pregnant"). But it is indeed a phenomenon to cherish and to try to bring back to real life. To try to reconcile the two selves. A tough assignment, I'm finding. And I think all of us at Totleigh would agree that the time there, while challenging intellectually and not easy to respond to, was also a sort of bubble out of real time, and by Day Five the bubble was quite sturdy.

For example. Last Friday, just a week and a day ago, I was in super-selfish mode: didn't do a thing I didn't want to do, did lots of things I did want to do, revelled in the sensation that we were living in a world apart, a world that wouldn't last but another several hours, like a turning-point ripe fig. And it was all true. This Friday, yesterday in fact, I did lots of things I didn't want to do, some things I did want to do, and mostly felt overwhelmed with the endless variety there is to be had in this life. There's wildest, remotest Devon where one's closest companions on a walk are suicidal pheasants. Then there's Piccadilly, where I had to fight yesterday to put my feet down on the pavement, where I stopped off to see the Robert Irwin show at White Cube. As an aside I must tell anyone who is in London tomorrow to go to the last day of the show: born in the same year as Donald Judd, Irwin's work is just as minimal, just as elegant, but more clever, funnier. Stunningly perfect installation.

But I digress. More on the schizophrenic nature of my Fridays.

The company? There are a bunch of brilliant writers to hang out with on a sunny day in said remote Devon, or a brilliant, stressed-out husband and his brilliant, endlessly optimistic business partner in SW1. Both of those choices work for me. There's the life of the higher mind, where you spend part of a Friday discussing what words are acceptable to be included in food writing, and where in all seriousness a person can ask the following question: "I know this is a controversial subject, but where do we all stand on the word 'morsel'?" And then there's the life of homework supervision where "Bunsen Burners for Dummies" is a real subject, and one's music homework can be done in limerick form. My mind is pretty much stretched on ANY of those subjects.

Last Friday I ate a meal that I cooked with three heartwarming friends, and last night I was fed very posh food by firelight, cooked by a lovely family who looked after my child while I was away selfishly cooking for myself. And the three-quarter moon we left behind in Devon was full last night, here in London.

So there you go. I realise completely that in all these compare-contrast high school homework sort of essay in the above, one thing stands out: I have absolutely no room ever to complain about anything. I err on the other side, actually: holding it all so close that I threaten to smother everyone and everything in my path! Learning to hang back and take it all for granted a bit more is probably a good idea for me. This afternoon I added a line to the piece I wrote at Totleigh about our beloved island in Maine, where I describe the children's fairy forests, and they are words to live by: "The children do not mind that these fairy houses will be stepped on, will fall apart, will dissolve in the next rainstorm. It is enough for them to have made them. I know I should feel that way about the things I make."

So, Day Five came. I knew from the outset I was in for a treat, for the simple reason that there's no day I like better than one spent in the kitchen preparing a meal for guests. But normally that means a very solitary, if delightful day, listening to a book on tape, working at my own pace, queen of my domain. Not last Friday. I was put in the very amusing position of being significantly older than, and having cooked several million more ordinary meals than had the chef presiding in the kitchen (Edward) and yet being praised for my red onion dice. "Oh, I AM sorry," he said, "I'm being condescending." You think? But it has to be said: he ran a monumentally efficient kitchen that afternoon. The four of us: Edward, Charlie, Roger and I, gathered after lunch to discuss our roles, and we all quickly realised it was the better part of valor to let the only one of us professionally trained to take charge. Whereupon Roger disappeared on some mysterious spy errand, and Charlie was given an enormous bowl of egg whites and the slowest egg beater on earth, and I? I picked apples in the glorious mid-afternoon sunshine and felt grateful to be there. A beautiful, blinking golden blue afternoon... with nothing to do but cook.

Roger reappeared in time to pick the apples requiring a tall person, and we all began chopping, mixing, stirring, listening to Roger's Swedish (or was it Norwegian?) girl singer music, all to the relentless whirring of Charlie's egg beater! Tamasin came in several times and gaped in astonishment and sympathy at the continuing whir. I have never known a man so devoted to egg whites as Charlie was, that afternoon. "We're looking for stiff peaks," Edward advised, and of course the two of them were very mature, snickering in a way that is universal among men: American or British, cooks or not. That line is always a winner.

Edward went off for his Orlando tutorial and emerged whole, if not wholly unscathed (we would expect nothing less intense from our esteemed tutor), and the afternoon sort of dwindled away, full of tasks and pots to scrub, desultory conversation and lots of silence. Altogether, I cannot explain why, one of the gentlest and most pleasant afternoons of my life. I know, you are all thinking: that is simply pathetic! What about shopping in Paris, doing research in Moscow, setting up a gallery opening in New York, you name it? Surely afternoons get nicer than mine last Friday? No. They don't.

We cooked, we served, we ate. Slow-roasted pork belly with thyme and olive oil, roast potato wedges with fresh rosemary and sea salt, braised red cabbage with Bramley apples and cloves, and Edward's special pudding which he is keen to remind me I never EVEN TRIED, apple snow. I do not like English puddings, for which I am very sorry and undoubtedly misguided, but there you go. Then we cleaned up and headed over to the barn for the last evening's readings.

But I've forgotten to tell you about the amazing transformation on Day Four of Rosie: into Foxie the Parody Writing Instructor! None of us can remember having laughed so much for so long... and yet I can't pick out a single word of wisdom to show why it was so funny. All she did (all!) was to read aloud from a truly sick-making American (naturally) self-help manual for people who have writer's block. And then she inserted her own inimitable, purely British, tongue-in-cheek bits to... help us understand the text. There is something so American (well, probably California, my New Yorker's identity wants to believe) in the "come on, children, you can do it, put a little power to it!" cheerleader nonsense that the book revelled in. And Foxie's delivery? I cannot describe it, but she had a hard time getting some of the words out, laughing till she was quite ill, too.

And I've forgotten the Interminable Dawn Death March that was my early-morning walk with Jenny and Louise! I had just come back from a walk all on my own, sensibly on DRY GROUND, when they scooped me up at the kitchen door and said, "Come on, we'll take the long way around." I stupidly forgot to ask, "Around what?" and went off amiably enough, in my absolute most favorite Varda boots from New York... and at first all was well. We went down the lane, up the lane, made a left where I normally carry on straight, were given directions by a wizened old man leaning out his picturesque cottage window, and were... promptly set down in a positive sea of mud. Jenny and Louise had on Wellingtons. I did not. For a mile or two it seemed like a fine challenge for an autumn morning: after all, mud dries, doesn't it? Finally, however... "You two, how much longer can this go on?" And Jenny said, "It's not so much how long as how DEEP." And she was right. At one point I was up to my knees. I wanted to lie down and sob, but there was cow s*&^t as far as the eye could see. I know, typical American, unprepared for the elements.

It's hard for me to be objective about that last evening's readings because I read one of my favorite pieces, about vichyssoise and Avery's birthday parties where we always served it. I don't know if it's a successful piece for anyone else, but as usual I found myself vastly too emotional about it to read aloud very well. How do newsreaders get through the stories that make listeners cry? I think I needed some distance. But that was a commodity thin on the ground on Day Five. Edward read from "The Little Prince," a piece both naively simple and inclusive of vast and mysterious emotion. Everyone sat as if spellbound as he read; it's one of those stories that lets each listener escape into a sort of secret room of individual emotion. Tamasin said to me later that he wove a Zen-like spell around us, and that is the fairest description I can muster. "It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye..."

Thank goodness, Pauline followed with a foodie poem of her own design, which she's given me permission to publish here. Its charms may fall under the category of "you had to be there," but I don't really think so. And then Orlando played the piano, we danced, we took one more long walk... And that, dear readers, was my week at Totleigh Barton. I need a parachute to come down. If I decide to.

Writing on Food

For Melissa the course proved less than enticing
The moment she found that it wasn’t on icing
She thought she’d be writing on pink birthday cake
Not laptop or paper, she felt such a fake

Tubes of colours and sprinkles crammed into a carton
Weighed down her suitcase at Totleigh Barton
She kept it locked shut, perceptively sensing
That e-numbers caused a visible tensing
In tutors who worried about unrefined sugar.
This was quickly becoming a right, royal bugger

But fast on the uptake she tried to fit in
And chatted ‘bout sausages with Tamasin
At lunch she leant over said “ketchup with that?”
Tamasin fainted flat out on the mat

Through lemons and food reviews things just got worse
Melissa’s writing got more and more terse
When asked to rate dinner the previous night
She wrote “If you’re asking, the salmon was shite”

Orlando’s gougeres didn’t impress her a lot, its
Reported she muttered she’d rather have Wotsits.
Then later that night after two crates of Becks
She and a fellow had credit-crunch sex

By eight in the morning she’d left without trace
Except for a message of dubious grace
Piped onto a chocolate cake left in the kitchen
(She told tutors both what to do with their pitchin’)

And everyone thought now that that was the end
Of Melissa and words that she’d caustically penned
There were some who imagined she’d end up in jail,
But no, she’s a columnist now on The Mail

She writes about food using words like ‘delicious’
And restaurant crits. that are always quite vicious
When asked where she learnt to tell pitta from naan
She always says Devon, with friends, in a barn.

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