Update: the next Lit Lit will be Friday, June 3 at 7 PM, at our regular location, the Howland Cultural Center. We are thrilled that Shaina Loew, author of Elegy for an Appetite and chef/owner of Café Mutton in Hudson, will be our featured reader this month and sign books!! Advance open mic signups are now closed. Proof of vaccination is required at the door.
Hi there. This is from my new work in progress, Jailbreak, a memoir where all the fighting, contending characters are parts of me. For Part 1, see here.
The jailer is not over-fond of food, but he does like to threaten prisoners with cutting a little flap of meat from them and eating it himself. He believes most will do whatever he wants to avoid becoming part of him. When he has me on the table next, he pops out a very sharp, pearlhandled knife, a beautiful thing, and moans as he shaves it gently across my cheek, as though I were a black truffle he had just been given. “Don’t you want to be inside me?” he asks. “Wouldn’t you like to make me vomit?”
I don’t know whether I want to make the jailer vomit.
I don’t know whether I want to be inside him.
He is inside me, that’s all I know. But I have to be truthful here: part of me *is* attracted to the jailer. On one level I would like to penetrate him, make him cry out in rapture, force him to drop his weapons out of too much joy. I could see us loving each other, could see us married and living together peacefully, blissfully in a willow bed of trust like Bert and Ernie. Would that solve things?
The jailer speaks:
Just putting one foot in front of the other foot is so hard. It hurts, and it’s slow. But it is not my job to complain about hurt or slow or hard or cold cold cold, it is my job to test, and to make sure, and to do right. It is my job to calibrate my negative reinforcements precisely to the work at hand. It is my job to look into everywhere, and to fight evil, and act.
It is my job to hold myself straight so that Donna will not fail.
Without me, everything sinks.
I have always been afraid that I would fall into the trash heap. Become oozy garbage, fall away and rot, and join — me, personally, Donna Minkowitz, join — what medieval people called a midden: the town’s heap of bones and animal carcasses, food waste, human dung they lived right next to. To become slime and fall away — sad — to fail while still alive. The reason I am afraid of this is that my mother thought my sisters and me were all right kind of I mean maybe but my father was a human turd. A poor human-shaped piece of shit with arms and legs, having the audacity to talk and think, and I was afraid that if my mother stopped liking me even a little more than she liked turds I would become one, too.
The jailer is a hero. He guards me against the filth that will corrode me from within, the evil impulse, and the blows I cannot take that attack me from without. He hurts me so the others will leave me alone.
He hurts me so the others will leave me alone.
I dreamed I was in my cell and the jailer kicked the door down. He hadn’t come to check on me in a long time. I stood in the corner and refused to look at him or speak to him, so he kicked me savagely in the stomach but I pulled him down on the floor, grabbing his legs, and we fought grappling head to toe, I bit him all over and sometimes I kissed him, bites and kisses full of saliva like a second-grader’s. But when I realized he was down and the door was open I ran out past him through it, leaving him lying there. I was free.
For years I have had an obsidian arrowhead on or around my desk. It freaks me out, but I keep it because of its power. I run my hands along its sharp edges — three sharp edges, plus the point — and know that it is the jailer’s weapon. It has always been here to help me do what I must. It is scary, a shiny black sharp thing like a priestess’s knife, made of lava flow.
The arrowhead is a form of volcanic glass, and it is meant to hurt. What they call “its energies” are scary.
It looks like the knife the priestess hefts to cut the animal’s throat or to slash a human victim across the neck. The victim is bound to the altar, and perhaps at the beginning the priestess’s hands were bound as well: maybe she cuts her own bonds with it first, but then she does what she has to do and slides it along the other woman’s throat.
The arrowhead has helped me do what I must but it frightens me inside. This piece of glass is about sacrifice, of the self or of another, take your pick. It is about dying imagined as the most needful, the most necessary thing — someone’s dying, anyhow.
In times of trouble, cooking makes me whole. I may be tired, irritable, I may have gotten home late, I may even be sick, but I stand at my fry pan tossing in onions, that base of almost every culture’s cooking. To me, it might as well be the base of life itself, as I stand there trying to make something tasty and satisfying and warming out of a few teensy bits of vegetables and some shreds of meat.
Cooking, which I came to only in my 40s and disabled, like someone clutching a lifeline, reminds me of the sacredness of the act of creation. It feels like making something out of nothing: whatever’s assembled on my cutting board – a little mess of garlic bits and bitter vegetables and cheese snips – always seems so poignantly small to me as the basis of a hot dinner that will somehow sustain two adults. The process that transforms these scraps into a whole always seems mystical to me: what god created this eggplant parmigiano pasta?
Certainly not me.
With cooking, as with writing, providence comes in and accomplishes what we ourselves, with our conscious minds, can barely accomplish. When I say providence, I don’t exactly mean God. Who made this dish? It was the fire (which reshapes molecules and “denatures” proteins and divinely caramelizes eggplants). It was the balsamic vinegar in all its oddness, sour, acid, musty, sweet, powerfully itself and shaped by hands and minds other than my own. It was the traditions of a million years of hominids cooking (while humans have only been around and making dinner for 200,000 years, our hominid ancestors have been cooking for even longer). It was my innumerable memories of meals out and Food Network snippets and half-remembered recipes, plus glimmering images in my brain (my mother’s ancient Italian friend’s fresh sausage and tomato sauce), and, maybe most of all, dumb luck and inspiration!
It was also me, yes, along with all of these. It was my own arm strength and my thinking mind, saying “Now! A dab more tomato paste!” and “Now! I want sesame oil and more parsley!” In point of fact, I feel really butch when I cook, much more butch than I do when writing, say, or making love. Turning the flame up and down, I am Hephaestus at the forge; I am Casey at the switch. I feel powerful, capable, gripping my 11-inch pan and smelting tomatoes, refining wine, building skyscrapers out of flour and beef. I am doing this for my family which consists of my partner and me, making things to keep us good and warm inside, and feeling loved. I am blending tahini in a machine noisy as a cement mixer, making a sauce so sumptuous it can make steamed zucchini taste good. I am butchering squashes and making rebellious Jewish bricks out of walnuts, apples and wine that will make our conquerors choke. I am constructing fantasy universes out of ground turkey and breadcrumbs and spices and egg. The turkey meatballs I make will make our hearts happy as we eat them in a radiant red sauce before going to the demonstration.
So, gentle reader who loves the taste of food, dear one who loves kimchi, posole, and democracy: go to the demonstration. There are a lot this week, and there will be more the week after, and the week after that. Keep going. Eat something hot before and after. Take care of yourself. Take care of other people, too. There is no contradiction between activism and compassion, no contradiction between activism and tenderness or sweetness: remember that. What I am trying to say is: everything we do, whether we are masters or novices, we do in the context of other people. I’m no great chef by any measure, but I learned to make a damn good dinner, and so can you. Individual writers don’t create literature, individual cooks don’t create the art of cooking, and individual actors don’t create entire movements. Everyone is needed, and everyone needs others.
Everyone is important in cooking up this struggle, even and especially you.
Hey, I’ll be teaching an 8-week memoir writing workshop in Brooklyn this fall! The class will meet on Wednesday nights starting January 27 in Windsor Terrace, from 7 to 9 PM.
This workshop focuses on craft – particularly on using emotion, sensory details, and storytelling in your long and short memoir projects. Students will get frequent feedback in a supportive atmosphere. The number of students is limited to eight. The cost is $325.
Let me know if you’re interested. You can contact me at growingupgolem AT Gmail. All best – Donna
Here’s some info on my background:
Donna Minkowitz has taught memoir writing for 18 years, at venues including the 92nd Street Y, The Kitchen, the JCC of the Upper West Side, and the New York Writers Workshop. Her recent memoir, Growing Up Golem: How I Survived My Mother, Brooklyn, and Some Really Bad Dates, was a finalist for both a Lambda Literary Award and the Judy Grahn Nonfiction Award. Her first memoir, Ferocious Romance, won a Lammie. A former feature writer at The Village Voice, she has also written for The New York Times Book Review, Salon, New York magazine, Ms. and The Nation.
More info: Location is near the F/G stop at Fort Hamilton Parkway. The last class date is March 16.
FAQ: Refund Policy: Withdrawal by January 22: full refund. Withdrawal by January 26: 50% refund. No refund available for withdrawal after January 29.