On and Off the Freeway
So what's getting its way when Love doesn't have it?
I'm thinking of "Had," a poem I wrote four or five years ago. It's neither my favorite nor my best--I'm not even sure it's finished!--but it stands out to me for how it captured an experience devoid of love, a series of moments when, though I wouldn't have used these words at the time, Love was not having its way with me.
after Cunningham's The Hours
By intuition it lands
green pepper bargain
in my shopping basket—why?
I don’t cook, don’t buy
ingredients anymore. The house,
the pans, the hands tolerate
just quick things
close to finished from the start. Yet
the bell pepper combines
conspires with gifted oregano, basil,
the last garlic clove
and my father’s tomato purée—
a summer's abiding ludicrous abundance—
open days now, it will spoil:
I owe it use. And besides
it is miraculous: last year’s crop
still fresh in a jar, preserved—
delicious, if given the chance.
Oh, and mushrooms just about to go:
I know what this means.
Turn a blind eye or give
my hands to them, a bit of time,
of salt, oregano, basil, thyme. It begins
by pulling them
into one place on the counter at noon.
They warm, wait. I
pass and pass again,
all afternoon, their invitation
(no, plea: use me).
I have everything.
The scallions nobly
stand in for onion—
it’s going to happen
this time. The insult of
the sorry state of my days
shall be sauce in an hour
and superb no less.
It can happen, I see now,
even without love.
When the counter is clean
when I’ve enjoyed
two helpings I’ll see
I am a traitor
not at all triumphant
not cook again at last but pawn
seduced by the accidental
set in motion
At what cost to devotion,
my true love?
I knew that making the sauce was not an act of love. I bitterly resented the assembly of ingredients that - yes, so it seemed - conspired to have it happen. It was as if they knew that I couldn't tolerate their going to waste. I utterly forced myself to cook that day; I did not enjoy it. Yes, the sauce was tasty in the end, and I wasn't unhappy to eat a tasty sauce made with such choice ingredients. But I took no joy in the process.
I remember sometime later my poet-friend Jennifer taking issue with this. We had been exchanging feedback on each other's poems.
"How can it be anything but love?" she protested gently but insistently, to the point of tears.
It pained her to think otherwise, or to think that I did at least. I didn't think otherwise; I knew otherwise: I knew I'd been had. Had by my own frugality. Had by the "insult of ingredients." Had by the harmony, the chemistry that made them all turn out: in my hands that day, it should have been a terrible sauce, really, but it was delicious. And I knew this poem needed a lot of work, but one thing I was confident about was its raison d’être which is clearest, I think, in its final lines:
set in motion
At what cost to devotion,
my true love?
At the time, I craved to know and to live the devotion I was writing about. I was desperate for Love to have its way with me--the way it did tonight.
Hunger struck an hour ago. I had foregone lunch, swept up as I was in the passion of the work of this day. So lunch and dinner became one: the centerpiece meal of the day, at 6 p.m.
There was fresh cod--that part was planned. The rest was a matter, as with the sauce, of seeing what I happened to find in the cupboards, in the fridge. The organic leek from the CSA order, the cherry tomatoes and fresh parsley from the Farmer's Market, the last of the brown basmati rice, the dried basil, the garlic oil, the lemon, the butter. In 30 or 40 minutes' time, I was sitting down to a gorgeous and delectable meal. Invented. No recipe involved. And prepared with Love. That is to say, in the company of Love. I delighted in the curling of the leek as I scored then washed it. I chopped, then gently sauteed it with the diced tomatoes, taking care not to under- or overcook them. I broiled the cod, because it brings out the best in this fish. The basil made its way into the simmering rice (an old favorite), which I topped with chopped parsley at the finish.
I do not dispute that such a Love as I just allowed to be, unobstructed, was available to me when I made that spaghetti sauce four or so years ago. I do not dispute that Love was present on that counter, that Love was all the while even coursing through me. It's just that I was totally blind to it, blinded by my bitterness which assured I would not be touched by it. My focus was fixed on what was absent in my life, not on the good that was present: the bounty arrayed on my counter, my steady breath, the faithful beating of my heart, the afternoon's golden light. I was miserable, and I was committed, it would seem, to staying that way.
My circumstances are not substantially different today than they were then. Inwardly, however, then and now are worlds apart. Then, I was resisting my circumstances. Now, I embrace them. I was single then, for example, and I'm single now--though I'd rather not be. Yet contentment has taken up the place where resentment used to reside.
Contentment, resistance, Love, love: these are either just words, or anything but words.
Love: That which, when left to its own devices, perfectly expresses in and as the Natural World.
Does it help if I state that?
Forget my words, all of them. For all I know you'll hear something in them that I'm not even saying. It happens all the time, no? So forget them. The earth speaks so much better than I. Always, the earth is speaking. Not in words, though sometimes it can be heard that way. Blossoms, trees, clouds, falls, wind. Stones, sands, rivers, herons, fins. Just look. At every turn, there's a reminder of what life looks like free of resistance, bitterness, jealousy, greed, rage, envy, cruelty, righteousness, arrogance, hatred, fear and the like.
I wonder what we all would look like free of these?