I have been enjoying a little respite from remembering, self-examination, and the dredging down inside for ways to tell of our experiences ten years ago. I am terribly grateful to all my wonderful readers who assured me that I had been able, finally, to express what I intended to express. As unlikely as it sounds, as soon as I pressed the “publish” button on my beloved blog, I felt a real weight off my shoulders. I flexed my muscles, took a deep breath, and felt completely prepared to let go of these experiences and memories, and to return to the ordinary business of living — and being me, writing about living.
Why do people want to write, anyway? Well, I turned as one should always do in these situations, for wisdom from great writers. Foremost among them for me is the inimitable E.B. White, author of countless humanist essays, endless articles for the New Yorker magazine, and for me most importantly, of “Charlotte’s Web,” possibly the greatest children’s book of all time.
E.B. White tells us two challenging things:
“Remember that writing is translation, and the opus to be translated is yourself.”
“All writing is both a mask and an unveiling.”
White’s words of wisdom here support a notion I believe completely: every self is an opus, every ordinary person’s life gives us examples for living our own. The hurdle is in the translation, of course. With a bad translation, even the most fascinating and illuminating text (self) can appear opaque, meaningless. We put the text aside and give up on whatever its message might have been, because the translation left us cold.
As well, White is telling us that writing is about CHOICES. Remember the old school game of “show and tell”? Think about it. Why are they two different notions? Because just showing — unveiling — means very little without being able to stand beside your chosen object and tell why you care, why you brought it in to school. And if the chosen object is your own SELF, then the unveiling and the translation become very precious.
Writing down our September 11 memories made it possible for me to put a sort of frame around our experiences,to try for once NOT to wear a mask but to unveil everything. E.B. White also famously said, “Write what you know.” Most of the time what I know is extremely daily, prosaic and ordinary, and I take a great joy in putting it into words, cherishing it all. Writing about such appalling experiences was very different — there was no joy in remembering, but I learned that remembering even terrible things very well is a gift. My husband and family felt relieved to have that part of our lives framed, defined, put in a box, and the lid shut firmly.
What made those memories so hard to unveil was the emphasis they put on how precious our lives are. It’s like the game I play on the Tube, looking around at every single passenger and saying to myself, “That person is the most important person in the world to SOMEONE. I wonder who that someone is?” Events like September 11 underscore that crucial role that every single one of us plays, to someone. More than one person, maybe, if we are lucky.
But after awhile, it is very nice to make sure that box lid is firmly shut, put the box on a high shelf, and turn back to the daily round of activities that make up our real life, deeply comforting in their lack of significance.
In other words, what I really like writing about is what the Victorian novelist George Meredith called “seeing divinity in what the world deems gross material substance.” How I love gross material substance, how I revel in it! Gross material substance might present itself as medieval church where I ring, and the weight of its glorious bells…
Not to mention the people who pop in and out of my imagined narrative: the daughter and husband whose crises of orthodonture and taxes form little hurdles to hop over, or crash into… And the lovely people at my church who have given so much time in order to make out of me a respectable bellringer! I did a really good job at ringing in “rounds” last weekend and Trinny, one of my lovely instructors said to Howard, my most devoted teacher, “Kristen did really well at that, Howard! Give her a little praise!” to which Howard answered, “She is nothing now but one of the nameless, faceless rabble to me,” grinning at me a bit with a twinkle in his eye. What an honor that is to me, to be part of the rabble. We pull our ropes, and the lovely tones float over the village, and I suddenly notice the little figures in the leaded glass window above my head!
Look closely! The little shapes at the bottom of the window are BELLRINGERS! And if you count over left to right, the eighth little fellow is dangling at the end of his rope high above the bellchamber! Someone with a sense of humor created this window, knowing how sometimes bellringing can be deadly serious, literally heavy, and we all need a little lightening of the spirits. That lightness is certainly something supplied by our young ringers, every one of them a beauty inside and out.
Life was made more delicious by lunch out with my friend Elspeth at Sonny’s in the High Street. How admire the food at that lovely cafe. It is my goal this weekend to reproduce the dish I had there: perfect sashimi of yellowtail tuna rolled in black sesame seeds, accompanied by little dollops of avocado mousse, tiny piles of individual grapefruit beads, and a scattering of shiso, a new ingredient for me, which the waitress explained was “Japanese coriander,” in America “Japanese cilantro.” Delicate and gorgeous.
To work off all this lovely food, John and I have been doggedly riding our bikes and playing our crazy version of tennis. “Use the WHOLE court!” we chortle, jumping for balls that go high over our heads.
One morning we hopped on our bikes and rode to hell and gone, trying to find the All Saints Church, Fulham where I was to ring bells that night! We rode and rode and rode, until finally we came to a bridge. “Well, this isn’t Putney Bridge where the church is,” I complained. “No, I think it’s… Battersea!” We were miles out of our way, so we turned around and rode past the Wandsworth Bridge as well, laughing at ourselves, and finally came upon the church where I was lucky enough to be a visiting ringer that evening. Gorgeous.
The fun of being a decent-ish ringer is that now I can be itinerant! I can wander, wherever I am invited. And the fun of Fulham was that we rang on what are called “simulators,” which means I wear headphones that play the sound of bells ringing in rounds, only the sound of my bell is left out! So I have to manage to ring in JUST the spot where the silence falls. Then there is a shameful session with Edmund, my Fulham teacher, who shows me on the computer screen an exact record of my efforts, and how far off the mark they are! Great fun.
With all my ringing activities, Avery is just as occupied — much more so! — with rehearsals for the school musical, “Sweet Charity.” She came home last week raving about the lesson the drama teacher had given them that day. “You know, it looks totally different to smoke marijuana than an ordinary cigarette,” Avery assured us, perhaps not noticing our looks of mild dismay. “So she showed us exactly how it should look.” “From personal experience, I assume?” I asked faintly. “I guess so,” Avery said, unconcerned. Her father gave an elaborate mimed demonstration, derived I fear more from trashy B-movies than any very extensive real-life knowledge.
All a mother could do was to cook, really. I had been hard at work the day before making some emergency chicken soup for one of Avery’s friends who was ailing, and something inspired me to make… chicken meatballs. So much more fun than just little pieces of chicken breast floating in the broth! And it required nothing more than John’s suggestion the following evening, simply “Pojarski?” to catapult those little meatballs into a sublime new dish. Give it a try.
Chicken Meatlballs in Pojarski Sauce
for the meatballs:
about 2 lbs/1 kg chicken breasts (about 8 small half-breasts), boneless and skinless
1 1/2/350 ml cup milk
1 1/2 cup/80g Panko breadcrumbs
1 tbsp Fox Point (or other savory) seasoning
good grind fresh black pepper
for the sauce:
3 tbsps butter
1 tbsp flour (more later if needed to thicken sauce)
6 cloves garlic, minced
1 shallot, minced
1 1/2 tbsp paprika
about 1/3 cup/90ml brandy
1 cup/275ml chicken stock
1 cup/275 ml sour cream
good grind fresh black pepper
Trim the chicken breasts completely of any fat, gristle, tendons. They must be supremely perfect for this dish. Now place them in your Magimix or Cuisinart and pulse carefully until the chicken is finely ground. Not mushy, but finely chopped.
Mix the milk, breadcrumbs and seasonings in a medium bowl, then add the chicken. With clean hands, squish together all these ingredients until you can see that the chicken is thoroughly mixed with the breadcrumbs and the seasonings are well-distributed. The mixture should be as wet as you can reasonably handle. Add more milk if necessary to achieve this very fragile, wet mixture. Set mixture aside.
Now make the sauce, because you will poach the meatballs in it. In a large (at least 12 inches) shallow frying pan or paella pan, melt the butter, add the flour and cook, stirring constantly, for a minute. Then add the garlic and shallots and saute until soft. Sprinkle on the paprika and cook for a minute or so. Deglaze the pan with the brandy and cook for two minutes rather high, stirring as the brandy evaporates. Add the chicken stock and sour cream and begin stirring with a wire whisk. Simmer and season with black pepper to taste. Be careful of the seasoning as this sauce (and the meatballs) can be deceptively salty depending on the seasonings with the chicken and the flavors of the stock.
When the sauce is thoroughly mixed and hot, carefully make meatballs the size of golfballs and drop them gently into the simmering sauce. Try to maintain a single layer, but if you cannot, poach the first layer for several minutes until the meatballs can be moved carefully, then fit in the extra meatballs. Poach at a low simmer for about five minutes, then turn each meatball carefully, coating them in the sauce. Poach a further five minutes. Taste to make sure chicken is thoroughly cooked. At this point you may take the pan off the heat and leave it for the flavors to develop. Heat through when you are ready to eat. Serve with noodles.
These meatballs are light, fluffy, delicate. The sauce is the definition of savory, rich, old-fashioned.
It was just as well that I was fortified with this lovely dish, because my next bellringing outing was a disaster. I tried a method called Plain Hunt on Five, which involves the bells actually switching places in their order. Beyond me! I got confused, the bell began to fall, I panicked, made the near-fatal mistake of looking UP into the belfry, the bell really fell and I forgot how to raise it. Too scary!
After rescuing me, my teachers explained kindly. “When you’re riding a bike, if you’re really good at the skills, then when you get lost you can retrace your steps. Or if a pedestrian wanders into your path, you can swerve to avoid him. But if you’re just beginning at riding the bike, if you get lost or swerve, you might fall off in the heat of the moment, and lose track of all your skills because they aren’t automatic yet.” Truer words were never spoken. I’m just not an automatic ringer yet. Thank goodness for those funny little window fellows, to cheer me up.
These lovely windows were put in around 1983 after arson fire of 1976 destroyed all but the original 1215 bits of the chapel, and the tower. Can you imagine, 1215! We are bandying around ideas on how to celebrate our 800th birthday in three years’ time. Imagine.
The brilliant thing about learning a new skill, and doing a new and very SPECIFIC thing, is the lovely freedom of being shouted at and criticized but ONLY for the thing one is doing! Just the wrong handling of your bell at that moment in ONE particular way. No hard feelings! No accusations of “being a bad ringer”. Just a mistaken action, at a particular moment, easily fixed, easily forgotten. No baggage.
Wouldn’t life be better if we could take criticism for everything that way… “That thing you just said to me, oh husband mine, I will take that as merely criticism of one particular aspect of my wifeliness, not a condemnation of the whole enterprise!” I’d like to emulate my ringing teachers and learn not to start criticisms with “You always…” or “You never…” Just “don’t do THAT!”
My father, the brilliant child psychologist… what an invaluable resource he was when Avery was a baby. I remember he offered me the following advice when I was a very young mother. “Be sure that what you say to your child is ONLY what you mean to say to her about exactly what is happening right then, not all mixed up with how mad you got at work, or how annoyed you are with your husband, or bad traffic or anything else. Just talk to her about the one specific thing. And then it’s over, and you both move on.” How wise and loving he was.
And so life has calmed down once again. This weekend will bring an anniversary party for old friends, a housewarming party for other old friends, for which I shall enjoy shopping for gifts. A haircut for Avery, a spot of gardening for me, our joint family project looking after the next door cat (coal-black, called “Snowy”) while our neighbors are on holiday, a delicious Saturday supper of lamb chops. “Gross material substance,” in other words. How lovely and divine it all is.Print This Post