Cookery Blog

2017: Leave-takings, Regeneration, Legacy, and Bearing Witness

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Work Song Part II - A Vision (Epilogue)

If we will have the wisdom to survive,
to stand like slow growing trees
on a ruined place, renewing, enriching it…
then a long time after we are dead
the lives our lives prepare will live
there, their houses strongly placed
upon the valley sides…

The river will run
clear, as we will never know it…
On the steeps where greed and ignorance cut down
the old forest, an old forest will stand,
its rich leaf-fall drifting on its roots.

The veins of forgotten springs will have opened.
Families will be singing in the fields…
Memory,
native to this valley, will spread over it
like a grove, and memory will grow
into legend, legend into song, song
into sacrament. The abundance of this place,
the songs of its people and its birds,
will be health and wisdom and indwelling
light. This is no paradisal dream.
Its hardship is its reality.

~ Wendell Berry

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Poetry has the power to take my breath away and Berry's poem did just that when I read it a few months ago. His words captured what I've been feeling -- that struggle and hardship are (and have always been) intricately tied to creation and redemption. 2017 was a strange brew of heart-rending and heart-opening moments and I've been struggling to find a way to wrap my arms around it -- to find peace with a year that delivered leave-takings, new beginnings, and opportunities to bear witness as the world, and our place in it, changed. 

It was a year that left me reeling in a number of ways -- good friends and a beloved family member walked on, Sadie graduated from high school, Jack graduated from college, my cookbook Life in a Northern Town was released, we hatched a plan for a cookery school in our kitchen, I settled into a fulfilling job at the Socially Responsible Agricultural Project, and the political scene at the national and state levels left me, by turns, deeply discouraged and cautiously hopeful. Talk about being shaken, stirred, and rattled -- it was a regular smorgasbord of emotions. 

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To be perfectly honest, I wasn't sure what I was supposed to carry with me into 2018. Looking back, it seems almost surreal -- the goodness was nearly always softened by a bittersweet awareness that new beginnings, by their very nature, involve leaving something behind. And that was a tough one for me, the realization that as I grow older there will be more leave-takings than beginnings and there isn't a damn thing I can do about it. 

It got me thinking -- can I make peace with grief, regeneration, and change that's out of my control? Where do I fit in a world that's become deeply divided and increasingly unstable? How do I, as Berry suggested, stand in this "ruined place, renewing, enriching it…then a long time after we are dead the lives our lives prepare will live there, their houses strongly placed upon the valley sides…" without losing my mind?

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On a trip to Madison, I found my answer in the form of a podcast and an Irishwoman named Mary Kate O'Flanagan on the Moth Radio Hour. Mary Kate told the story of her father's death in Carry Him Shoulder High and I was struck by the following two sentences: 

"But thank God, if there's one thing the Irish do right, it's death. ...in English you say, 'I'm sorry for your trouble' but in Irish we say 'Táim imo sheasamh leat' (I'm standing with you) and we mean it literally."

Leave-takings, change, and the inevitable moving on can be bitter pills to swallow....even when I'm headed in the right direction. The phrase 'I'm standing with you', as opposed to 'I'm sorry', implies solidarity and companionship. It's an active phrase, one that says I'm here, I'll bear witness, I'm not going away, we'll start where we stand and make the road by walking, together. It's an anecdote to division, anger, and grief -- something we desperately need right now. 

And that's what I'm carrying into 2018. The promise that I intend to stand with my family, my friends, and my community -- no matter what happens. I've abandoned any expectations for a smooth transition though the challenging days ahead in the political arena but I wholeheartedly believe that by standing together, we have a helluva shot at bringing the last stanza of Berry's poem to life, "Memory, native to this valley, will spread over it like a grove, and memory will grow into legend, legend into song, song into sacrament. The abundance of this place, the songs of its people and its birds, will be health and wisdom and indwelling light. This is no paradisal dream. Its hardship is its reality."

So, hello 2018 -- I'm ready to roll with whatever you toss at me because I'm standing with my people...and I'm exactly where I belong. 

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