Strong in the broken places

Everything slows down come January, grinds to a near halt.

It's not the cruellest month of the year -- April still holds that position according to poet T. S. Eliot -- but it's close to the top. That is, at least, until it snows.

I like the lingering days of this month, the way one evening drips into the next. With fewer plans, I take my time coming home, enter my apartment, pour myself a glass of wine, and listen to Billie Holliday sing her soul out, apron strings tied around my skirt as I pad around in my black nylons. The rain brings out two types of people: the ones who are glad it isn't snow and those who wish it was. And when the snowfall finally hits, as it did in the wee hours of the morning, the dreary urban landscape meets with sweetness and romance.

I can't remember where I read it, but recently I skimmed an article where a chef said that food's primary purpose isn't to impress, but to comfort. It's always a gift when a meal succeeds in tantalizing all five senses while satisfying a real, deep hunger, but satisfaction does take precedence, doesn't it? Maybe that's what lures us back to mashed potatoes and hearty beef stews, to braised lentils or roast chicken. If we are what we eat -- oh, cliche of cliches! -- would you prefer to dazzle with your looks or your capacity to comfort?

When Amherstburg was hit with a tremendous (and inordinate) amount of snow one year, my Dad shovelled it all to the side and made a fort for my sister and I. It was a large fort, big enough to fit five or six small kids, and high. We played in it all winter long, hiding out from the world. That's how I think of my Dad: the man who unearths possibility from seemingly dead things, who offers security and comfort from nature's elements. In the years that followed, Laura and I wished for snow, our hopes dashed repeatedly. That fort at the end of our driveway was magical and special, the front yard a canvas composed of indistinguishable snow angels.

Vulerability is generally met with a great deal of hesitation. We resist putting ourselves out there; we could get hurt or injured, perhaps irreparably. We worry about slipping on black ice and being found by stray dogs (or, in the city, a wandering bum more likely) because we live alone and have no one to worry about our whereabouts. Vulnerability means getting exposed to the elements and having to cope with the backlash. It means not knowing what spices to add to which dishes, doubting our ability to follow a recipe, second-guessing our choices. As independent as I am and as difficult as it is to write the following sentence, I, too, need comfort at times. I'm not made of stone. As Ernest Hemingway writes so elegantly in A Farewell to Arms, "The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places." And perhaps that is exactly as it should be.

The fort, made of snow, dissolves; a great meal is eaten as quickly as it's made. Blankets and sheets wear thin. But the sense of warmth endures, no? Even in the midst of January lies the promise of spring and the heat of summer. If you allow yourself to stand out there -- unknowing and afraid -- yes, you risk being eaten by stray dogs. Or potentially Hanibal Lector. But you learn how to rely on others. You learn that you have it in you to make a meal that comforts (and possibly dazzles, too). You learn how to breathe new life into the dead things. You might learn that by letting others in you can build an army -- an army that won't fight against you, but for you, and never let you go it alone. And then you sit around the table and clang glasses, eating together and conversing together, warm on the inside.


Jess said...

Thanks for putting into words what I've been feeling lately, too.

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