My parents were about the pursuit of the so-called good life. When they fell in love after the war it was as intellectuals. This meant that you got together with other couples like you—-good-looking, highly educated, and amused folks who listened to Coltrane and Miles Davis and raised their kids to be extremely high achievers, drank a lot of wine, passed along great books, knew about the latest poets, and cooked Julia Child’s recipes and cutting-edge ethnic food.
I still remember my mother fully engaged in a number of enlivening, centering pursuits—-cooking, reading, baths, hanging out with her best women friends making marmalade and chutney (then trying to trick the poor children into liking it). And the figs my father and I devoured from our friends’ backyards—how perfectly one fit into your mouth, the succulent flesh with just a little something to chew against, to keep you focused, the honey juice that didn’t run down your chin but down your throat, bathing you in the exotic ancient pleasure of a most common fruit.
The food and life my parents created would have been delicious and nourishing, if it were not for one tiny problem—that they were so unhappy together. My brothers and I ate cassoulet at a table where our parents avoided making eye contact and, rather than shouting, which was considered déclassé, engaged in clipped conversation. It was the Joy of Cooking meets Harold Pinter. So the steamed persimmon pudding was easy on the taste buds but hard to swallow, because it came at such a cost: a lump in the throat, anxiety in our bellies.
What had happened that turned my parents from the bright young things who fell in love over literature and wine to a cheerless woman and man who after dinner took their books and glasses to opposite ends of the living room, connected only by a lily pad of children on the rug between them, lost in homework?
I think the answer is what didn’t happen: They were not able to take their pleasures, their love of their children, out to the next concentric circle, where something bigger awaited. My mother and her women friends made not only vats of that world-class chutney but mole poblano and cakes from scratch, and yet because she was empty inside and stayed in a miserable marriage for 27 years, she who cooked like a dream could not ever feel satisfyingly filled, and got fat.
I found the spiritual food for which I longed as a child in the families of my two best friends. One was Catholic, and lived up the block. The Catholics said grace before serving up aggressively modest fare—English muffin pizzas, tuna noodle casserole, fish sticks. The parents seemed to enjoy each other’s company: What a concept. Sometimes they yelled at each other and then later hugged and kissed in the kitchen—oh my God. It had never crossed my mind that peace could be found in full expression—in yelling, and weepy embraces.
I also loved to eat—-and be-—with a Christian Science family, who did not yell but read the Bible and Mrs. Eddy together. We prayed, eyes closed, breathing deeply. In the silence you could feel and hear your own breath in your nostrils, and that could be both relaxing and scary, like having a car wash in your head. Of course, I did not mention this to my parents—they would have been horrified. For me it was heaven, even though we frequently ate snacks for dinner—popcorn, store-bought pie. This food was so delicious because of the love in that house, the love that had at its core a sweet, strong marriage. They did not yell or kiss as much as the Catholics, but I felt enveloped by the friendly confidence of their faith, and I was sad each time I was remanded to the spiritual anorexia over at my house.
By the time I was in high school, I did what all bright perfection-seeking girls learned to do, besides staying on my toes because something bad might be about to happen: I dieted. Or, come to think of it, binged, dieted, and binged, like my mother, but never felt that simultaneous state of being full without being stuffed. And like my father, I began to drink a lot. Like both of them, I had the disease called “More!” and absolutely could not feel gently satisfied.
Nothing can be delicious when you are holding your breath. For something to be delicious, you have to be present to savor it; and presence is in attention and in the flow of breath. It begins in the mouth, my parents’ preferred site of comfort, and then it connects our heads to our bodies through our throats, and into our lungs and tummies, a beautiful connective cord of air.
In the mid- and late ’60s, two things came along that started to give me my life back: the counterculture and the women’s movement. A beautiful hippie teacher at my tiny high school gave me I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and then Virginia Woolf’s journals, all of which I consumed like someone at a hot dog eating contest. My best friend Pammy and I discovered Jean Rhys and Ms. magazine. Then I went to a women’s college, and the older girls and professors gave me the Margarets, Atwood and Drabble, and the early Nora Ephron collections, and it was all like when Helen Keller discovers that Anne Sullivan is spelling the word w-a-t-e-r into her hand, and wants her to spell everything in the world now. I was learning the secrets of life: that you could become the woman you’d dared to dream of being, but to do so you were going to have to fall in love with your own crazy, ruined self.
I met in circles with more and more women, who, as we ate vats of lentils, taught me about my spirit and my needs and my body. I met with mixed groups of people to strategize protest, or save open space, and we gobbled down vats of rice and beans. I showed new friends how to make my parents’ cassoulets. They taught me about halvah, pomegranate wine, and massages to heal both body and soul.
Awareness dawned on me in these years that the values of my parents’ lives, of the good life, were going to be part of my evolutionary journey–the marvelous food and storytelling, bookstores, hiking–along with what I found in the religious houses of my childhood friends and in churches, along with sharing the deepest truth with women, in profound and hilarious conversation, along with silence and meditation. God: This was so radical, and so delicious.
I am not saying that it became easy. Like learning the piano or Spanish, or meditation, I had to practice and do poorly–I had to read difficult material, and then stay with it, and talk to others, and slowly start to understand. Then I had to try something hard and worthy again. I had to seek wisdom, teachers. And oh, relationships–don’t even get me started, unless I have all day to describe the total, almost-hilarious inappropriateness of every fixer-up–I mean man–I tried to get to love me. But as Rumi said, “Through love all pain will turn to medicine”–not most pain, or for other people; and all the pain and failures grew me, helped slowly restore me to the person I was born to be. I had to learn that life was not going to be filling if I tried to scrunch myself into somebody else’s idea of me, i.e., someone sophisticated enough to prefer dark chocolate. I like milk chocolate, like M&M’s: So sue me. But I no longer have to stuff myself to the gills.
I mean, not very often.
I learned from all my teachers that when I feel like shoveling in food, a man, or purchases, the emptiness can be filled only with love—a nap with the dogs, singing off-key with my church. Or maybe, perhaps, a fig.
I learned that opening myself to my own love and to life’s tough loveliness was not only the most delicious, amazing thing on Earth but it was also quantum. It would radiate out to a cold, hungry world. Beautiful moments heal, as do real cocoa, Pete Seeger, a walk on old fire roads. All I ever wanted since I arrived here on Earth were the things that turned out to be within reach, the same things I needed as a baby—to go from cold to warm, lonely to held, the vessel to the giver, empty to full. You can change the world with a hot bath, if you sink into it from a place of knowing that you are worth profound care, even when you’re dirty and rattled. Who knew?
~Anne Lamott (from the April 2012 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine)