Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Searching for a Superego

People say things to me -- or more accurately, write things to me -- that take me by surprise. Strangers, I mean. Names and avatars (not always even faces) that I know from Facebook, or from other virtual worlds. They tell me their secrets, their pain, even their shame sometimes, or sometimes they think they're having a casual conversation, even though it doesn't look so casual from my side of the screen. They come to me for reasons I can't quite figure out -- not in the hopes that I will make them feel better, or be a loving and empathetic ear to them as they reveal their struggles, because what reason would they have to expect either from me? To expect anything from me?


After so many instances of this sort of encounter, I've finally come to realize what they want, these strangers. They don't approach me simply to unload their burdens, to ease their guilt or shame or pain or confusion -- they come to confess. They want to be judged, and they hope I'll be the one to take on that responsibility. I've stopped asking "Why me?" because for all I know this is a normal part of life, to be asked to soothe people by acting out their worst fears of being judged. Is it?

The thing about passing judgement: you have to care enough to do it. And I usually don't. I'm not sure if that makes me empathetic or merely apathetic. It certainly makes me a disappointment to these people. Why can't I just give them their penance and let them go back out into the sunlight? Why keep them in the limbo of their guilt?

Last week it was a man who is ambivalent about his new relationship -- a stranger to me to the extent that I have no idea whether he is in his 20s or his 50s, or what he does for a living, or what he looks like, or anything of the sort; I know him only in the French sense of the term, in that we've had lively debates and conversations about politics. After months of not even this little contact, he came to chat. He turned the talk towards his anxieties, and then balked when he felt that I was judging him. I was laughing on the other side of the computer -- not just because I had no particular opinion about his predicament, but because it was so clear what he wanted from me. This week is the woman who wants me to tell her that she's not a racist, a woman less than a stranger to me. I have no idea if she is a racist or not, but I've had enough people in my life approach me to ask me to absolve them of their bigotry by telling them it's okay to say, do, or feel whatever they're saying, doing, or feeling that I have little patience for it now. And besides, they're unlikely to want to hear the answer. I'm not their god. I'm not their superego. I want no authority.

It's not that I don't understand the impulse. Don't get me wrong.

When my marriage was falling apart, I resorted to three lifelines. The first was marriage counseling, a useless enterprise for the most part because our counselor would start every session with ex and I by announcing that she felt very intimidated by our intelligence, and then would make it clear that she had a crush on my husband. She saw me as ungrateful, she saw my anger and my heat as unruly and unseemly, she would say to me "do you see how it's affecting him when you raise your voice?" even though I was raising my voice because he had done something awful. We never really got around to dealing with the awful things; we concentrated mostly on the volume of my voice. But it didn't really matter how softly I spoke: it was the fact that I was angry that made him flinch, not the way I expressed the anger. I ended up speaking so quietly no one could hear me.

The second lifeline: horoscopes. I have an Indian's love for astrology, and I consider myself to be a typical Taurus, placid and docile unless pushed, earthy, stubborn, strong, resilient, loyal, creative. I find out what people's signs are when I meet them, because I'm convinced the alignment of the stars at their birth will give me some insight into who they are now. But as for predictions or daily guidance: I only pay attention to horoscopes when my life is falling apart, when I am grasping for some marker telling me where I should go. Those moments I would consult four or five astrologers daily, hoping to see some sort of pattern or direction in their platitudes. I needed the universe to guide me, I would think. But of course horoscopes are completely inadequate for such moments, because they're horoscopes. If they spoke truth I would have met a man of my dreams every month for the past five years. Fine for a party game or an instant pop psychologizing of a new acquaintance, but not to be depended on for anything important.

The third lifeline -- and the one that surprised me most, even as I turned to it: at the lowest point of my marriage, the point at which I knew viscerally how unhappy I was but refused to articulate it, to form the words on my lips because to do so would make it real in a way that I wasn't prepared to deal with, at that very point I wrote to an advice columnist. A modern day Ann Landers.

No fooling.

I had gotten into a habit of reading my horoscope and then reading his column, hoping that if the stars couldn't tell me how to live my life maybe his advice to other unhappy people might guide me. He seemed, from said column, to be smart and reasonably neurotic and kind and very open-minded, with a hint of not suffering fools lightly. He wrote beautifully, too. He scared me a little, in the way that very grounded people scare me. Like they might see right through the charade.

One day in a pit of desperation I started typing, the words pouring out by the hundreds before I realized I was writing to him. By the end, the letter was so long, and -- objectively, reading it now -- so hysterical that from a distance of five years I feel so sorry for the person that wrote it, even though that person was me, some iteration of me at least. When I got to the end I thought maybe I should edit it, cut it down to size; it had the character of a story of a playground argument told by a 10-year old, every detail trotted out in nonconsecutive fashion, full of asides and digressions that seemed totally necessary for the reader to understand if he were going to help me, no matter that, for the listener, the story was one he would have heard a thousand times. Then I thought, "It's okay, no need to edit -- it will never be published anyway. I sound like a madwoman, with my rush of words."

I was shocked when I looked at the column a few days later and saw the letter there -- or rather, I was shocked when, perhaps two-thirds the way through the letter I was reading, I realized it was mine. Unedited, untrimmed, unshaped. Exactly the way I wrote it. I don't know why I didn't recognize it sooner, why I didn't hear my own voice and my own secrets.

If I were to write the letter again it would simply say: "I'm so unhappy, and I want to be happy. I don't trust him, but I want to trust him. Tell me how to be happy. Tell me how to trust." His answer would have been the same: "If you want to trust, you have to trust. The only way you can trust is to just do it until you know there's a good reason not to do it any more."

I cried burning tears of anger and betrayal reading this, these inadequate words of advice from someone I was turning to as a last, desperate measure. Because I didn't want him to tell me how to be happy, how to trust. I wanted him to say to me what I knew was true before I ever wrote a word: that I would never be happy, and I could never trust. I wanted him to say what I couldn't admit to myself. I knew damn well that by forming the question I was also constructing the answer. He probably knew it, too. But why should he be the one to lead me to the spot where I was already standing? Who was I to him? Who was he to me?

I imagine the worst part of every divorce is not the breakdown of the relationship, but the admitting to oneself that it is beyond hope. When I finally could face the reality, when I finally asked my ex to leave, I wrote back to the advice columnist, telling him what had happened, telling him that it wasn't my inability to trust that was at fault, it was something completely out of my control. He wrote back, asking if he could publish this second letter. But then a few days later he said he'd changed his mind -- his column wasn't the right place for epilogues.


After-Dinner Fruit and Nut Crackers to Eat with Cheese
Makes many

This is a recipe adapted from The Kitchn for Harvest Crackers with Cranberries, Pecans, and Rosemary, and it's quite wonderful -- these little crackers are terrific paired with all kinds of cheeses, especially soft, creamy goat cheese. They're made like biscotti -- bake once, cut into thin slices, then bake again. They keep for a while, but you'll want to re-crisp them in the oven if you don't eat them right away. Alternately, keep the little loaves in the freezer and cut as needed. Either way, super simple and elegant.

1 c dried cherries
3/4 c pecans
1 c all-purpose flour
1 c spelt flour
1 TB herbes de provence (or substitute a mixture of dried thyme, rosemary, and fennel seeds)
2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
1 c milk
1 c plain yogurt
1/3 cup packed brown sugar
3/4 cup sunflower seeds

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Spray two loaf pans with non-stick cooking spray.

Place the cherries in a bowl and cover with boiling water. Allow to plump while you're preparing the crackers.

In a small frying pan, set the pecans over medium heat, tossing and stirring for 5-10 minutes until they are fragrant and starting to brown. Remove from the pan and chop roughly. Set aside.

In a mixing bowl, whisk together the flours, herbs, baking soda, and salt. Add the brown sugar, making sure to break up any clumps and incorporate it into the flour. Add the milk and yogurt and mix until just combined and no dry flour remains.

Add the drained cherries, pecans, and sunflower seeds to the batter and stir gently to combine.

Divide the batter between the two loaf pans. Bake for 35-40 minutes until a toothpick inserted into the middle comes out clean, and the loaves are golden brown.

Remove the loaves from the pans and let them cool completely. Wrap the loaves in plastic and put in your freezer for at least an hour. (If you're not going to bake the crackers right away, just leave in the freezer until you're ready, up to 2 months). 

When you're ready to make the crackers, preheat the oven to 300˚F. Remove the (semi) frozen loaf from the freezer, and slice as thin as possible using a serrated knife (you want slices around 1/8" thick or even thinner, if you can manage it). Cut each slice in half, to create two squarish crackers. Lay the slices out on a parchment-lined baking sheet. 

Bake the crackers for 18 minutes, then flip the slices and bake for another 12-15 minutes. The crackers should be dry to the touch and curled slightly at the edges. Don't worry if they're not crisp -- they'll crisp up when they cool.

Allow to cool on a baking rack and serve.


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