Underwear, Avocado, and Being Loved Inside the Hunger and the Mess


The year I was 43,  maybe even this year, I swear I stained half our wardrobe. You could blame the fact that I still cooked most of Mani’s meals at that time, and most of Mani’s meals at that time were cooked in copious amounts of butter or ghee. You could, but the truth was that I bought an adorable apron with gnomes on it for the express purpose of saving our clothes from ruin, and for all the stained tank-tops and t-shirts we’d had to toss in the trash, I had only myself to blame.

Today I read a response by Rebecca Solnit to someone who’d left a comment, referring to climate change, that read: “We have only ourselves to blame.” She wrote, “Who is we, and what good is blame?”

So, it didn’t matter whose fault it was that I kept splattering and wasting our wardrobe with grease (though clearly it was mine). What mattered was that she didn’t get angry and I didn’t grow fearful of her becoming angry, and this, in a nutshell, characterized our entire relationship.

One day, maybe even today, on our way home from her having a procedure at Cooley Dickinson, the hospital in nearby Northampton, we stopped for me to zip into Whole Foods to pick up a few things. I was shaky with hunger; in feeding Mani and my kids and due to stubborn, old habits, I wasn’t always so on top of feeding myself.

I took a hand basket and ventured into the produce section, selecting one ripe heirloom tomato, a bunch of fragrant, fresh basil, and a perfectly ripe avocado for myself, three bunches of organic broccoli, a bag each of local yellow squash and zucchini, and a bag of organic gold potatoes for her. As I walked past the antipasto bar, I spontaneously decided to fill a small plastic container with fresh mozzarella to eat with the tomato and basil rather than spending more money on a pre-made sandwich.

As I lifted the small circles of cheese onto a serving spoon, olive oil flew onto my dress in a vertical line, from the midpoint to the hem. I immediately heard a pang of self-criticism in my head. Damn! Really, Jena?

After we got home, I stripped off the dress and doused the splotches with detergent, hoping I’d caught it in time. I threw on a t-shirt, forgetting to remove my sandals. then put away the  groceries and proceeded to assemble my sandwich: Whole wheat pita, sliced mozzarella, thick slices of heirloom tomato, half of the avocado, salt, pepper, a drizzle of olive oil, and a heap of fresh basil. I clapped it all together and sat down on a green kitchen chair to eat.

Mani had just finished a bowl of Rice Chex and was talking to me cheerfully about something I forget now. I was ravenous and mostly focused on my food and how quickly I could consume it before a 4;00pm coaching call. And that’s when it happened.

It’s in the little things we see love in its purest form.

“You have avocado on your cheek,” Mani pointed out, raising her hand to her own face to mirror mine. Her eyes filled with a look I can only describe as adoring. There I was, devouring a falling-apart sandwich in a hurry in my underwear, the stained dress in a delicate cycle in the adjacent pantry, and my wife was suddenly overcome with love for me. We laughed about it, recognizing both the ridiculousness and preciousness of the moment, so exquisitely ordinary and belonging to us alone.

Later, after I’d finished eating, I got on the phone. “I’m in my car eating a pop tart and drinking coffee,” said my wonderful client. “I’m in my house in my underwear and a t-shirt and I just wiped avocado off my face,” I replied. We laughed and went on to talk for an hour about writing and real life, measuring up and what bullshit it is, what courage feels like, and the oppressiveness of trying to keep up with the idea of what you think your life (or writing, for that matter) “should” look like.

This is the life I want, where we can splatter butter, ruin outfits, drive each other to the hospital, laugh, and listen. I want the life where I tell you I’m sitting here in my underwear waiting to see if the stains come out, and where you tell me you’re eating a pop tart and your heart is broken or healing.

Give me this life where I don’t cringe at the sight of my own flesh or wish I were someone else, and where I am not only tolerated but loved most of all, most adored, in my hunger, in my mess, in my half-naked sandal-wearing ruined beauty.

If you get lost in a fog of fantasy or sucked into fear that your ordinary life isn’t interesting enough, send me a picture, send me a message, send me a sign — and I will return yours with one of mine. We can remind each other to laugh.

There is no one to blame for how lovable you are, except whatever name you give to the mystery that gave you to this human form, gave you a body to feed and clothe, and gave you this love, where you learned to truly forgive yourself for being all-the-way human.

* After the first line of Anne’s Sextons’s poem, Courage: “It is in the small things we see it”

Happy Birthday, Deborah

Deborah with Rufus (r) and Buster (l)

Deborah with Rufus and Buster

Minimal Circus
(She who taught me to “listen hard” in the tradition of Anne Sexton and so many others before us. I slipped this poem under her screen door on a late-summer night in 1996 — and share it again today on what would have been her 66th birthday.)

One night let’s invite da Vinci and St Francis of Assisi
to drink red wine from half carafes,
sit by the fire in this glacial room
where the soul of the world’s in orbit,
try to forget that each gift could be the last,
Do anything to stave off the inevitable:
Store evaporated milk in reusable cans,
keep pens and paper and candles at hand.
Late, when the guests have passed out, let’s drag the dead
weight of distraction from the living room chairs
and wait for the night to cease, for day to end,
for time’s implosion.
It’s a private affair—
the uninvited do not even perceive the web
that cradles,
the host of characters at the table,
the guardian spirits lurking,
the unlocked doors of time collapsing,
the fire of dreams, the disguise of flame.
They can’t fathom the orgies and nectar flowing
around this house some mornings,
the bands of birds here, plump and raucous,
who are memory, who are greed.
Brother, father—
The men who did not know her yet
Carried her body across this field
Where my house now stands. She hovers.
The bell counts.
She was called back. I was called forward.
Wearing cotton tunics,
let’s stand on a cliff beneath the watery sky:
clasp hands, swan-dive.
We who go like spies through the world—
we can be the winning pictures,
the lost negatives, the grateful scribes.

101 Blue Hills Road

Me and Deborah, 101 Blue Hills Road, late ’96

Miss & love you, Deborah. Happy birthday.
February 6, 1950 – April 10, 2009