The Grand Bohemian Hotel

I’m waiting at a stoplight in Biltmore Village. My busted-up truck is not a good match for these  convoluted streets and  the faux-historical facades in this walkable faux-high-end shopping district inconveniently appendixed onto downtown Asheville. There is a train passing beyond the stoplight, cars slowly rumbling past, and we’ll be here for a while. Beside me, a tourist in a Lexus rolls down the window and shouts, “Hi! Is this the road to downtown?”

I reply “Yeah, you just keep going and you’ll hit Patton.”

“Patton is the main street?”

“Sort of, there’s not just one. This road becomes Biltmore Avenue, and you’ll see downtown up to your left.”

“Is that where we turn for Oktoberfest?”

“Yeah…I usually avoid driving through downtown, I don’t know any of the events.” Look at me, y’all, I’m a redneck in a truck with a fucked-up camper, you think I go to Oktoberfest?

I look over at the parking lot to my right – there’s a shirtless man standing beside his little red sedan, over on the side closest to me, at the edge of the parking lot where you’d assume a little privacy except for the stopped traffic on the road. He’s putting on a lavender dress shirt, at odds with his unkempt beard, and I think about homelessness and code-switching and how a dress-shirt will change the way people see you, even if you’ve got no undershirt underneath. I’m resting my elbow on the steering wheel, my chin on my hand, absorbing this stolen intimacy when he looks over at me: eye contact as he’s doing up the buttons, he doesn’t give a shit. Tucks the shirt into his dark jeans, fixes up his belt, puts on a grey flannel suitjacket and a grey trilby cap, pulls a lavender violin case out of his car. I’m already enamoured.

As he starts to leave, a teenager in a valet uniform from the Grand Bohemian Hotel comes up to him, and I can see how short the musician is in comparison to the teenager, and I think well of fucking course there’s another short dark-haired guy, of course I have a fucking type. I can’t hear their exchange but I can see it: This parking lot is for the hotel, the lavender man is playing music at the hotel and he’s going to be late, I’m sorry Sir you can’t just park your car here. Exasperated, the musician tosses his keys at the boy, who smugly slips them into his pocket and walks away. The musician runs across the street in front of my truck, through the other three lanes, and dashes up the stairs into the Grand Bohemian Hotel.

This living in Asheville is often like a Wes Anderson film.

 

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You, These Days

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“I don’t understand how young people have relationships these days,” he says, after I tell him that I ended things with a guy I was seeing who turned out to actually have a girlfriend he was lying to me about.​​

I don’t understand either. We’re making it all up as we go along. The ground fell out from beneath our feet. Millennials can’t afford to get married, can’t afford to buy houses, eat too much avocado toast, drown in college debt. Our parents had the highest divorce rates in history. What does any of this mean anymore?

My grandfather ran around on my grandmother when he was courting her. He used to tell me stories when we were riding in his little brown two-tone Ford truck that smelled like leather and tobacco, Johnny Cash on the radio, coming home from church. We’d leave early, the two of us, the rest of the family doing their Sunday afternoon socializing. On the drive home he’d get to to telling me stories about the ladies he was seeing when he was a twentysomething boy courting my grandmother.

Raucous, inappropriate, not the kind of stories you tell a twelve year old girl, but I didn’t realize. We’d sit together in church and pass silly notes back and forth. We sat together at family holiday dinners, bewildered, like we didn’t quite fit in with the rest of that family we’d found ourselves in.

He came from a poor family a few states away and as a teenager moved to the town where he met my grandmother. He was living with his older sister, no parents, evading child protective services (what there was of it at the time). Had one pair of good clothes he’d wash every day after school. Picked up hookers at the bowling alley after taking my grandmother, heiress of the chicken farm industry, on polite dates around town. Got a job with the Department of Transportation, built roads, travelled. For a few years after his son was born my grandfather lived hours away and kept an apartment there and probably kept a woman but he’d never admit it around my grandmother but she knew, and she wrote to a Senator to have him reassigned back home. He was still home so infrequently that upon his retirement she had to teach him how to drive the lawnmower. He’d get up at four in the morning, drink a cup of coffee, go to the diner and have breakfast with the boys (the men’s group at church, sitting in a long row at the bar in the diner or in folding chairs along the tables in the fellowship hall, a line of crows), maybe come back home for second breakfast, go out to the workshop and build things.

I was never really convinced that they liked each other terribly much. They tolerated one another and wouldn’t ever give up but love is something that changes.

It seems to have made more sense then. You find the one you marry, the ones you fuck, the ones you’re friends with; you and your spouse have mostly separate social lives, the arrangement by which you share a home does not require that you share everything, although there’s plenty you wouldn’t admit to, and unless he’s beating you you’re probably just going to stay put and carry on. His social sphere was  made up of the men he worked with, the men from church, the men he drank coffee with. My grandmother’s social life was similarly separate. Not only did they live out clear economic and household roles – he worked, she made dinner and washed the laundry and tied his tie every Sunday morning for church and baked a pie every Sunday afternoon – they also did not expect to include one another in all their leisure time and entertainment.

These days it seems we expect to be constantly entertained – by our devices, by our partners. We have the right to pursue perfection and attain it, and perfection requires the consolidation of separate spheres into one union, and we are migratory. Where my grandparents socialized with folks they’d lived around all their lives, we move for better jobs or better schools or cheaper homes, far from the people we know.

My generation seems to pursue a vision of everlasting love in our partnerships, everlasting romance and infatuation. Commercialism has been capitalizing on romantic insecurity for so long that I can’t just point to a single factor, a simple cause-and-effect; but I would argue that definitions of a “good relationship” change over time, and that folks in my age bracket (thirtyish) would expect different qualities in their partners, and have different parameters for when to end the relationship, than our grandparents. I could put some time into researching longitudinal studies on relationship satisfaction, but I’d want data going back at least three generations, and if somebody hasn’t already written it, I’d have to get into archive records like old letters and diaries and do Google books searches and – ain’t nobody paying me for this shit. Let’s continue.

My grandparents could financially support the nuclear family ideal : it’s a generalization, and much more attainable to white men specifically than anyone else, but you could get a job in a factory and buy a Ford and a house while your wife stayed home with the kids. We can’t do that anymore.

Economic and cultural factors, on a collision course toward paradigm shift after World War 2, collided with technological advancements and we’re living in the fallout of that nuclear explosion.

It wasn’t necessarily simpler or easier in some imaginary “way back then”. People  weren’t necessarily happier. But cultural norms are shifting faster than ever before in the history of us as a species. For many reasons, we can’t just follow the pattern our grandparents followed when they met and courted and married and raised children. It’s not just escalating divorce rates and economic depressions and the Internet, but it’s all of it together.

I am floating in a void.

When you’ve been alive for three years, a year is a third of your life! When you’ve been alive for thirty years, ten years is a third of your life. Time doesn’t get faster, but our frame of reference changes. We can only use our frame of reference, limited by the span of our lives.When we look at our peers and we say “It’s okay, plenty of women are single mothers at age thirty who later meet and settle down with a long-term partner”, we’re leaving out the fact that this has only been true for, what, fifty years? Maybe a generation?

We are the first people for whom this is true. We’re all of us floating in a void, alone.

And we’re figuring it out on the fly. We’re building dating websites, apps, acronyms, a shared language. We’re educating ourselves and each other and our kids about consent and protection. We’re flying through the freedom of defining our genders, presentation, preferences, orientations, and relationship structures.

But we’re doing it without a cultural context, without a history, and it’s all happening so damn fast.

Or maybe I’m old now. I turned thirty a couple of weeks ago, and I’m yelling for these kids to get off my lawn. And I just broke up with that Sicilian pig farmer after finding out that he’s in fact had a girlfriend this entire time & was cheating on her with me. So, of course, my reaction is to contextualize that experience in the larger social and historical frame, dive into academic research, and try to prove everything with numbers and data and facts. But at the end of the day, I’ll be reading Prechtel and all of this will tie again into the search to be ancestors worth descending from, and that’s all I have to hold onto.

August 

I’ve been dreaming lately. I usually don’t – only sometimes, certain parts of the moon cycle. I find the emotional reverberations unpleasant.

Two nights ago I dreamed running, afraid to be found. I took the Jeep out into the night and drove through unfamiliar coastal swamp land. I called a friend, hoping I could dump the car and be less easily traced, but he was in Michigan.

Last night I dreamed visiting a datefriend at his home, but instead of the farm he shares with his wife and daughter, they lived in an apartment, a wide open space with beautiful dark hardwood floors, tall windows, a sense of peace I didn’t want to leave. The joy he shares with his wife is hard for me to be around, in comparison to my own story of loss. I didn’t want to leave, and I lost my car in his parking garage.

Mundane dreams that float through the day like misplaced memories and I can never be quite certain what I’ve said and haven’t said.

#eclipsecamp2k17

How do we come home after the world ends? How do we return to the company of strangers with whom we did not share a collective communion of orgasmic joy as the moon slid in front of the sun and evening-dark descended upon our expectant upturned faces? How do we put up again the walls around our souls so that we may engage in daily interaction when our hearts are broken open to everyone and everything?

(You can build the walls and halls that keep you/ and tear them down)


     Singing together is the most sacred communion I can imagine. It’s like riding a bicycle on an old familiar path through the woods you used to know, coasting downhill with your eyes closed, coming home again. The song becomes a physical space, as tangible as a mansion you constructed in a dream, and the turns and stairs just as predictable once you understand the walls and the rooms. You might stumble and lose your way but the path remains, the walls remain. When you sing the same note together the sound whirls around your head like a bolo swung above you, the vibrato of your voice drowned out by the wheel of your voices joined, swinging in orbit up there just above your head where there resides the part of your soul that lives outside your physical body. When you find the harmony it’s a well-worn groove, a comfortable glove, a warm embrace.

(You can drink the water/ and sanctify your mouth)

     It’s been years since we’ve sat beside each other to sing. There is an ease and clarity, and I want to remember that I am capable of feeling this way. I am afraid of forgetting how it feels to sit beside the fire through these nights in our pilgrim village, leaning into his voice, holding a note through the dissonance in his music, dissonance that resolves into harmony if you will just hold on. There is an occasional intentional dissonance that scratches against the melody, creating narrative tension, throwing you slightly off balance the way good art does, giving the song teeth behind it’s smile. This establishes a contrast to the simple pleasure of harmonic predictability, because how do we know joy if not for sorrow?

(With my memory erased, I might mistake you/ for an old friend…)


     It’s been three years or more and I still know his songs.

We talk about the stories that fed the lyrics, and I collapse into laughter at one particular revelation. “I’ve been singing this with you for how many years and I had no idea?!”

We sit beside a campfire the night after the world ends, and we are again old friends, the way we’ve nearly always been, hands in pockets easy, and it could well be years before I see him again, and maybe it’s only easy to me and not to him, how would I know, how can you tell what you see in someone’s face isn’t just your own reflection, and suddenly there are tears, because this moment will pass and it will be years before I see him again and in the years between I forget that anything can ever be this simple and generous and kind. I find myself crying often through the weekend at the pilgrim village of eclipse tents, sometimes when he’s right beside me, sometimes alone. I’m fine, there’s just water coming from my eye holes.

(You can take the fever / and let it out)

     Before the moon has fully left the sun I am sitting by the shore of the lake in the strange sharp-shadowed light, the wrong light, the light of the world ending, and I am in a black mood. We have returned to the beach from our wild drift across the lake, the moment of communion in collective orgasmic joy has passed, and I do not trust myself to remember how it feels. He sits beside me and we talk the way we sometimes talk, indirectly around a subject, because it feels as if we are not discussing a thought that one of us has, but instead as if we are having the same shared thought and then talking around it. As if a moment of telepathy occurred as a mental veil dropped, but briefly, and then we are separate again – the way all of us in shouting distance joined together in a shared moment of psychadelic cosmic communion during the moment of totality, and then we turned away, back to our own solitary experience of the world, the soul which had upjumped to the big togetherness in the sky has now dropped back down to reside behind our eyes, and we are again alone, and the moment has passed.

I tell him that I am afraid to forget how it felt out there on the water, all of us together. I tell him that has been my struggle for years, to come to terms with uncertainty, recognizing the way memory differs from experience and is less trustworthy, accepting not knowing what comes after. I am far from a practitioner of any meditative discipline, I am but an egg, but I do intensely practice presence and detachment in the form of “fuck it”. I have a habit of pushing myself through difficult experiences to prove that I need not fear them. I am more even-keeled and calm now than I was for much of my life. But in this moment, there on the shore of the lake, knowing that the moment has passed and will never come again and all I have left are the stories I tell myself to make myself remember, only the words and not the shape of the thing, this is the hardest part.

He says something about how it’s all lessons and I am sharp in my reply. I do not want a platitude, I do not want to be placated, I do not want to resolve this discomfort with the peaceful knowledge that all events are lessons and all things must pass, because sometimes it just fucking hurts and you just have to sit with it. He agrees. The sunlight softens, brightens, and the waves recede from the shore. Later, on the drive home, I remember something he had said the night before.

(If I were just my heart)

     I walked past as he was telling his friend about a zen koan, something about how eventually you’re going to drop that glass you’re drinking from and you’ll break it, someday, and you can avoid disappointment when it breaks by recognizing that right now in this moment as you are drinking from it, the glass is already broken, making each moment that remains that much more precious.

When we are returned to camp the night after the world ends, I tell him, “The glass is already broken.”

(Inside of you/ is the very light to/  which my soul flies)

     During the eclipse we are adrift in the middle of a lake, four of us beloved, laying on a barely-afloat air mattress emblazoned with unheeded warnings, THIS IS NOT A FLOTATION DEVICE, and we have a box of wine (equivalent to four whole bottles of wine), merlot, blood-dark, and we have a ziploc bag full of eclipse glasses that has been brought to the center of the lake held aloft by my arm like a liberty torch as we kicked our feet and inched against the current, and we are surrounded by our children and their friends all in floats, one kid wedged into an inflatable basketball goal around his head like a corona, and my son, the youngest, travels in our wake in a life vest, seated in an inner-tube which is tied to my ankle so he doesn’t drift away. We four nearly finish the box of wine before the eclipse begins, before we have reached the center of the lake, and we begin to sing.

We sing “You Are My Sunshine” in four-part harmony. We sing “Amazing Grace”, because he and I slide into those acapella harmonies with haunting clarity and confidence. We sing everything we can think of about the sun and the sky, and the one among us who does not think herself a singer is moved by the spirit, becomes a vessel for the collective unconscious, and she sings out a verse about the sun. He and I repeat it back as a four-bar blues song, I’m singing the harmony above him while the song is birthed, and the world around us begins to go dark, and we are singing this spontaneous canticle, and none of us will remember the words when this is over, it’s gone to the ether, it belongs to the eclipse and to no one.

The crickets rise, the clouds around the horizon are the color of sunset, but in the wrong place, because the sun is above us and the shadows fall below us but are not long as in the evening. We are wine drunk and ecstatic, lying across one another on this inflated camping mattress as it floats several inches below the surface, but we are aloft, and we hush our children amid a sputter of hilarious fart noises and “yo mama” but then they are silent, and I begin to quietly “ommmmmmm” and then he’s singing a Sanskrit mantra and the rest of us join, ommm, quiet, quiet, as quiet as the crickets and singing in the same key, as the moon breaks through the shell of the sun and we rip off our damp cardboard glasses and shining away in the west is an evening star and we are screaming, screaming, all of us, a roar gone up from the crowd on the shore and I hear my dog back there barking, howling, and we are shrieking in a collective orgasm of joy and communion and we lay tangled, supported in the water, quiet again, the sun just a thin crown around the moon, and the world has ended and we are holding each other, keeping ourselves afloat, nobody knows whose elbow is slid through yours, whose thigh you’re squeezing, whose head rests on your hip. Our souls have taken flight, circling around the moon, way up there in the sky.

As the dawn breaks again from the center of the sky we kick into the water and push the boat over to an island where we dicsreetly squat to piss like nobody’s watching (as if we and everyone in shouting distance are floating in post-coital bliss, where there is no shame or fear, we’ve gone uncivilized out there on the water) and we pass around the remnants of the boxed wine to the strangers standing on the island, but the cardboard has disintegrated and been shoved in pieces into the ziploc bag (don’t litter), so we pass around a transparent skein of blood with these strangers who have been standing on the island, and someone passes us a cigar, and we laugh together, and we say “This is my blood given to you” and we say “Thou art god” and we say “Thank you.”

Again in the water we push the boat over to a closer shore, singing that spontaneous canticle, but the lyrics have changed, and again our harmony is telepathic and we each know the words in a direct transmission from the big God Radio up in the sky, and again we will not remember the words when we arrive at the shore. My son and I actually scramble up the hillside to the road and walk along the road and down again to the beach, a shortcut, as the rest of us push away back into the lake and paddle the bed again through the cove to the shore. The teenagers have made a fire and are cooking the food we brought, everyone is cooking here.

(You know the wind will bear you up / and the earth will bear you down)

     When we arrived in the morning to the beach there was a family packing up their tents and setting up their camera. They are from Alabama but before that they are from Czechoslovakia, and they have traveled here to be in the totality zone, to see the full eclipse. We are soon joined by families from the far Eastern part of our state, by families from Mexico, and we are surrounded by more languages than we can count, someone’s speaking Arabic, and when the fires are lit after the eclipse many people come to ask “Can I share your fire?” And a gift economy springs up here at the beach where we are all soaked with joy.

The same gift economy has sprouted at the pilgrim village of tent-campers when we return in the evening. We and dozens of strangers have gathered here to spend the days before the eclipse: off-grid, with no phone signal or power or running water or toilets, together to watch the sun. We borrow knives and towels and pass around the food we don’t need.

(I would make sense of / all these petty thoughts and fears)

     When our pilgrim village is packed away the morning after the world ends, and he is leaving, and I can’t stand there with my arm around his waist all day because we have to go home,  I remember that the glass is already broken, and I tell him this again. I go home with his songs and the echo of our voices rattling through my head. There will be another full eclipse in seven years, I hear, visible on our continent, and I hope that we will all go.

 

hookup yoga

The day after, I was angry. I’d slept less than an hour, and I was beyond exhaustion, in that otherworldly frantic space from being awake more than thirty hours: like wine-drunk, a strange hollowness in the chest. If my brain had been able to slow down I’d have passed out at my desk at work.

The day after, I was angry because I carry now a memory of him, casually naked in his kitchen at 4am, washing dishes, pouring the rest of a beer down his throat, moving around the kitchen in a familiar graceful and efficient way while I leaned against a counter and wondered if I was awake enough to safely drive the three hours up the mountain to work. He pulled a slab of bacon from the fridge (from the heritage-breed hogs he raises), diced it neatly, and threw it into a cast iron skillet (he restores them, that is some of his work). Coffee in an electric percolator. He slung eggs in the skillet on top of the bacon (you can tell when someone has an innate knowledge of kitchen timing, that confidence and grace). He wasn’t there to impress me, he was just focused on what he was doing, and that is different – the lack of self-questioning. He asked me how I take my coffee, added the cream, and handed me a hot mug of strong coffee, and a minute later, slid in front of me a plate with an english muffin egg and bacon sandwich.

Driving home in the early dark I was angry because I had to mentally recalibrate everyone I’ve ever been with.  I’d measured experiences on a scale up to ten, and suddenly, it goes to eleven. I was angry that I have to carry the memory of that moment while knowing the incredibly slim statistical likelihood of meeting someone else who also occupies every category I seek, who is passionate about and experienced in and knowledgeable about literally everything I have been working for years to bring into my life. It’s so much easier to be mediocre and complacent because mediocrity and complacency are easy to find.

I expect there are other women. There’s always a skinnier prettier little pieces of ass to show up to get fucked. There are always pretty little things who are better at engaging emotionally than I am, and who don’t have the constant obligations I have. I don’t give a fuck. I don’t have to try to prevent that from happening. I don’t have to be engaging and sweet and make an effort to be desirable. I’m not going to try to be something I’m not, I’m not going to compete.

There is no sweetness in this. This may be a particularly autistic way of approaching intimacy. I categorize, I calibrate, I understand the world through numbers, feelings matter only as far as they can be quantified. There are lists, venn diagrams, flow charts and equations. When it comes to intimacy, I am transactional and efficient. I approach fucking like it’s the discussion of a business partnership. I am looking for x, y, and z; within these parameters.

So I left, and I sat with the discomfort of knowing I’d just hit a peak I’ll likely never reach again, the discomfort of not knowing if I’d see him again, and I kept my mouth shut. I do not reach out. I didn’t take action based on how I was feeling. Communication is brief. I’m not going to be pushy or needy. I am working very hard to not give a fuck. I continue going out there when I’m asked. I am just here to be a good piece of ass.

I have a child, and a career, and I work all the damn time. I have friends, I have obligations, and I have neurological differences that prevent me from functioning as expected and required in emotionally intimate relationships. Might as well be okay with that.

Each time I leave, it’s the same discomfort. So I sit with the fear. If it’s the last time I ever do that, I might as well get comfortable with that. What am I in the absence of external validation? What am I without reassurance that I’m attractive, engaging,  desirable? Sit with that discomfort. Lean into the places that hurt. Don’t use those feelings to make decisions. These feelings of discomfort are my feelings, they don’t belong to anyone else.

There is a rat eating a hole in my heart, but I can breathe around it, and I’ll be okay, and eventually the rat will go. The third and fourth day of silence are the most difficult, and by the fifth day, I’m okay again.

When I’m alone, it’s easy to allow myself the comfort of imagining that I’ll eventually be good enough for someone else, that someone else will eventually love me.

It’s very different to accept that I am not owed that story by the universe. I am not owed the experience of some perfect partner out there waiting to meet me. I am not owed an “other half”. I am not owed reminders that I am attractive and desirable.

I know I’m cool as hell. I’m brilliant, I’m creative, I work hard all the damn time, I’m really funny, I am good at listening, I am highly competent, and I give a fuck about things that matter. I didn’t need a boyfriend to tell me that I’m cool when I work on my truck, I just work on my fucking truck. I’m the best piece of ass for reasons I won’t go into here.

But I also know my skills are not socially valued, and the skills that are socially valued in women are not skills I possess. I know that my way of being in the world is troubling and hurtful to neurotypical people who see my bluntness as criticism, who do not understand why I take things literally, who communicate through subtext and subtlety and are frustrated and hurt when I do not understand subtext and subtlety. I cannot learn to be unblind to social communication, any more than someone who is colorblind can just try harder.

I appreciate the practice of sitting with discomfort, leaning into it, learning to be okay.

rabbits and crows

I was driving back to work from my lunch break when heard a high-pitched scream. I stopped the car and looked to my left, through the chain-link fence of the high school parking lot, and I saw on the ground a cluster of crows and a rabbit. One of the crows was worrying something on the ground, and that something was a baby rabbit, and the baby rabbit was shrieking: over and over and over again, the high whine like a newborn human in distress.

The adult rabbit, the mother, ran toward the crows and they took to the air and something fell from the sky, smacked the pavement, and took off running.

I pulled out my phone and I began to film.

The crows returned and picked up the baby rabbit again, and it screamed again, and the mother rabbit hopped toward them, and the crows took to the air, one holding the baby in it’s beak. The baby fell again, the mother ran to it, and they ran together, and the crows returned. The sun continued to shine, bright mid-day spring sun, and the sky was a cheery bright blue, and the clouds were puffy streaks along the blue, and the crows again picked up the baby rabbit and took to the air, and the baby rabbit screamed until they dropped it.

The mother gave up the third time the crows snatched and dropped the baby, although it was still able to run, still able to scream. The mother returned to her nest under the hedges by the fence, and a car came up behind me and the driver tapped the horn, irritated that I was idling at the stop sign. I put down my phone, put the truck in gear, and drove on.

The video is less than two minutes long, and I don’t know what else I could have done.

Should I have jumped the fence at the high school in the middle of the afternoon to chase away the crows? I’d be a midday trespasser, running, waving my arms like a crazy person, and security would come rushing down.

Should I have rescued the injured baby rabbit and called a wildlife rehabilitator? I’d be a midday trespasser kidnapping wildlife.  In high school I volunteered with a licensed wildlife rehabilitator, and I can tell you that the work of raising up and re-wilding an injured baby animal is tedious and rewarding, but I cannot tell you that it’s “worth it” for the little creatures so likely to die on the highway or in the jaws of a neighborhood cat.

Should I have jumped the fence and granted the baby rabbit a quick death? Then I’d be a midday trespasser murdering wildlife.

While that’s the most gruesome option, it also seems to be the kindest, and I have done this before.

Once, living on the commune in the woods in the mountains, I shocked a boy I liked when I abruptly picked up a steak knife and walked out of the kitchen and reached down into the tall grass and picked up baby rabbit the cat was torturing, it’s flank ripped entirely open to the bone, and I sawed that steak knife right through the tiny rabbit’s screaming throat. I had not yet slaughtered chickens or meat rabbits, I did not know how to quickly pop a rabbit’s neck vertebrae, but I didn’t think the slow death being given to the rabbit by the cat was fair. I felt responsible for the little fist-sized clump of downy fur once I’d killed it, and I took it back to my house, and I skinned it and I gutted it and I fried the haunches, little thumb-sized slivers of meat, and I ate it beside a dinner of rice and beans and collard greens.

I eat meat. I eat dead animals, and those animals were once alive, and if I can’t handle facing their death I don’t deserve to eat them. On the long path to connect with the source of what sustains us, I have felt called to fully understand the sacrifices that are made in order for my life to continue. I am driven to understand the fullness of the thing. I have raised backyard chickens, and loved them, and eaten them. I have killed animals to eat them, and I have killed them as quickly and smoothly as possible. I have joined farmer friends on the hardest day of the year to give my hands to the slaughter, so that my skills can remain sharp, so that I do not become complacent. I have forced myself to not turn away from the blood and the shit and the slime. I flinch away from the casual hands of strangers, and I can’t stand to be touched by any child that is not my own – their little hands are the wrong temperature, or too moist, and I feel a crawling on my skin like the wet trail of a snail. But I do not turn away from the death of animals. This being human makes me responsible to them.

I didn’t do the right thing filming, gathering a minute and thirty seven seconds of video. I thought when I started to film that the rabbit had won, that I’d have some epic badassery to share, a mother rabbit chasing away a murder of crows. Instead I have a minute and a half of torture and screaming and sadness – crows doing what crows do, rabbits doing what they do, nothing sentimental. In my eating of meat, I’d prefer a kind life and a quick death, and the same for myself when the time comes.

 

prosciutto

 

“I believe that one of the most dignified ways we are capable of, to assert the reassert our dignity in the face of poverty and war’s fears and pains, is to nourish ourselves with all possible skill, delicacy, and ever increasing enjoyment. And with our gastronomical growth will come, inevitably, knowledge and perception of a hundred other things, but mainly of ourselves. Then Fate, even tangled as it is with cold wars as well as hot, cannot harm us.” -M.F.K. Fisher, 1942

I have an afternoon free and I’m in town, so I’m at a farm. We carry bags of feed to the pigs, find shiitakes on the logs by the creek, move a chicken tractor. I’ll take any opportunity to be involved in the work on a farm or in a kitchen: the rituals of food are sacred, the rituals celebrate and bring us closer to the source of what sustains us. It matters to do what is important when you can. Be mindful when you’re walking, pray with your footsteps and your hands, connect with the divine as you wake dry yeast to life with water and sugar and raise the breathing dough into bread, celebrate the divine in one another as you break bread with your beloveds and with strangers. Harvest wild foods and be grateful. Knowledge shared is a kind of prayer.

We know ourselves by the stories that connect us with the purpose of what we do and the people who did these things before us. As Martin Prechtel writes, our work as humans is to live beautiful lives that honor the source of life, and particularly in these days of decline, to reconnect with the traditions of our indigenous ancestors (we all had indigenous ancestors): to become ourselves ancestors worth descending from. For this reason, I have grown San Marzano tomatoes and canned them up as the red sauce that is the blood of Sicilian ancestors, and I have sat in the light of winter and traced needle and thread through the stitches my grandparents placed in the quilts that warm the beds, repairing the wear on the stitched fabric made from my mother’s worn-out clothes, and I will pass these quilts and these stories on. The connection and the story are sacred.

Comfortable in the afternoon light, he’s pulled from the fridge bags of pork jowl, remnants of the pigs he raises. I recall my grandmother’s baked pork jowl and pinto beans and collard greens, the ritual lunch on New Year’s Day, a southern Appalachian tradition: the collard greens and pinto beans represent the money that will come to you in the year, food is fertility. With the food came the admonition that what you do on New Year’s Day you do for the rest of the year; time is a fractal, recursive, and this is honored in tradition.

I’m sitting at his kitchen table, sipping a beer in the warm afternoon, listening to the sudden heavy rain outside, watching as he slices through the slab of meat with a small knife, and I think maybe each knife is his favorite knife: many of them made by friends, handed down from friends, populating the kitchen with their stories.

He’s pulling out the sliver of jawbone and the small glands, tossing the raw meat of the jowl into a pan – pink, juicy, flabby. There’s a digital scale over to one side of the kitchen, and an old three-beam scale on the other side, and a small calculator. He’s weighing each pork jowl on the newer digital scale, calculating the salt and spice with a memorized ratio, and weighing the salt and spice into his grandmother’s brandy snifter placed on the triple-beam scale that belonged to his father.

The pork jowls are bagged up with their salt and spice and slid back into the fridge, an equilibrium cure. Whoever receives them will cook and prepare not only a meal but a moment, a story, a slice of death-become-life and the alchemy of salt and time and the result of the work that is sacred.

Laying on another counter is a prosciutto, a whole shoulder-and-leg-and-foot, dry and compressed and dark, cured with salt and hung since winter. It looks like exactly what it is: the carefully preserved part of an animal, recalling the mummified bodies of a saint, sacred relics, ancient traditions. He watched this boar as it was born, he fed it and raised it up, killed it, cut the body apart, built the salting box from old barn wood and the smoking boxes from old restaurant refrigerators, and hung the shoulder in his workshop through the winter. This is the body, given to you.

Traditionally it’s the ham and not the shoulder cured for prosciutto, and traditionally not an intact boar: unless castrated, the fat of the boar will carry an intense aroma of musk and ammonia, a flavor that, to some, ruins the meat.

He opened the prosciutto a few nights back to share with friends who will be moving away soon, a communion, another layer of story to the food that sustains us. Today he’s cutting carefully into the inner meat of the shoulder and the leg, pulling away tissue-thin slices of the clean and compressed layers of fat and meat. Blood-dark red outside, as pink as your inner lip inside and marbled with smooth white. The outer crust of the prosciutto is dry and salty, the meat inside is soft and sweet. The leg laid out on the counter, although transformed by salt and time into food, bears none of the artifices we usually see from the nourishment of our over-processed lives. Here is the foot, and here is the bone in the shoulder that connected this leg to the animal, and the muscles that moved, and here is the flesh cut away like a surgery, like an anatomical drawing, the grain of the muscle and the clean lines of fat, and the knife sliding in, and his hands inside the body of this animal, and the insides on the outside where they should never be. The intimacy is raw and disturbing and honest.

Soon I taste a piece that carries the taint from the uncut boar: the thin sliver of meat is soft and sweet on my tongue, salt at the front of the flavor; and as I chew, the fat releases a punch of sharp musk straight up my nose from the back of my mouth, and I recognize it as the fragrance of an unwashed and undeodorized body, intensely male. Paired with the sweetness from the alchemy of cured meat, the flavor profile now has an edge and an intense complexity.

I imagine this salt-cured boar shoulder described by a sommelier in the poetry of wine, I imagine it marketed as “like bacon that tastes like raunchy fucking,” because that’s what it is, right there on the table and on my tongue, the intimacy of the inside of the body split open and bare, and the alchemy of salt and time. Too much salt or too much time will kill you just as well as having none of either, but there’s nourishment and poetry in the balance, in the equilibrium, in the cure.