Sunday, September 23, 2007

Yom Kippur

I know this is a little outdated, since Yom Kippur was yesterday and I wrote this a few days before, but it seems relevant...

It has been so cold in the mornings I have been wearing two pairs of socks inside my boots and a hat. The boots change everything about the day. The ground feels different through a half inch of leather. It is dark when I wake up in the mornings now. I wake up in darkness. Last night I made apple pie. Butter, flour, water, salt. Apples, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, honey. We ate it this morning standing around the harvest board, our hands wrapped around mugs of coffee, our breath white against the sky. The sky has been too bright for me recently, and the moon has been too sharp.

Yom Kippur is Saturday. I am going to spend the whole day cooking. I am going to make applesauce in a blue enamel pot and oatmeal bread that fills the whole kitchen with its nutty scent, and pumpkin pie that glows. We harvested pumpkins yesterday. Afterwards I felt strong. It is a good afternoon’s work, harvesting a truckload of pumpkins. I like my body when I’m working. In the field I feel young and beautiful. I can feel the ribs of my muscles and the outline of my heart as it beats inside my chest. The pumpkins shone orange and gold in the afternoon sunlight, and standing in the back of the dump truck as the crew tossed me pumpkin after pumpkin, and the stack behind me grew taller and fatter and brighter, I thought: I could die from the vastness of this. The field is sacred and so is work and when I can feel my muscles moving in their cages I know I am saying a true prayer.

It is Yom Kippur on Saturday and I am going to make pie with the pumpkins I harvested while the sun sank lower in the sky and my skin gleamed with happiness and sweat. They are lined up now on my kitchen table. They speak of bounty and autumn and they light up the kitchen. I am going to make tomato sauce with only the bare essentials: tomatoes, basil, garlic, olive oil, salt. I am going to fill the house with the scents of cinnamon and cloves and rising bread and onions sizzling golden in the dark bottom of the skillet. I am going to get up early and spend the day in the kitchen, the prayer-center of the house, the temple of everything I hold sacred. I don’t feel like a Jew today and I don’t want to atone. There’s enough atonement in the world already. I only want to celebrate. I only want to eat and be grateful.

I am not going to fast on Saturday. Fasting seems inconceivable to me right now. I am hungry all the time. I want to fill my body with good, solid food: tomatoes with olive oil and basil, baked whole apples, carrots roasted with ginger and sesame seeds. Onions cooked for hours on the back of the stove while I write by the windows in the other room. Gingerbread with lots of molasses. Roasted fennel and curry with fresh chilies and cumin seeds and paprika peppers. Fresh eggs and tangy white goat cheese and acorn squash baked slowly with maple syrup. I am not going to fast on Saturday. It is fall now, and everything is impossibly sad and impossibly close and I don’t want one good day to go by that isn’t layered with the scents of basil and fresh sage and nutty bread rising in the oven.

I don’t know what this is about. Last year on Yom Kipper I drove to Plum Island alone and walked along the beach watching the sunlight change on the water. The color of the sky and the sound of waves on rock was food enough. I sat on a bench on the edge of the salt marsh and wrote down what I saw: a blue heron, a snowy egret, the sun coming out from behind the clouds, low in the sky, turning the grasses in the marsh to gold. I drove home in silence on the highway and waited for sunset to eat. Food seemed far away to me that day. It was enough to sit in the company of the marsh and the ocean, enough to lie on my back in the sand and trace the movement of the clouds across the sky with my fingers. It was enough to feel the earth on my bare feet and the wind in my face and know it was fall and fall was enough and food was unnecessary.

The year before I spent most of the day on a blanket spread out under an oak tree in Oberlin, Ohio. I wrote the first poem I was ever proud of, and walked around the little pond and watched the robins. I broke fast alone on the porch of my coop with a bowl of granola and a glass of cider. I was lonely. It was important that I was fasting. I broke fast as the sun set, and I could feel each swallow of granola as it went down my throat. I could feel the sharp, sweet liquor of the cider as it filled up my gut. It mattered that I was fasting. It mattered that I set aside one day and did with it what I was ordered to do. It mattered, even though I didn’t go to services, even though I have never been to services on Yom Kippur. It mattered that I made that day a ceremony. I fasted on the most scared day of the year, and when I sat alone on the porch and finally brought the cider to my lips, it was that much richer, that much more of a blessing.

It has been so cold in the mornings that my hands turn red as I bend over to harvest radishes and cut heads of lettuce from their roots. I wear my warm corduroy vest to work and a fleece over it, and all morning I listen to the sound my boots make on the earth as I walk the fields. I don’t know what this is about, this need for food, this refusal to adhere to the laws of a religion I have been trying so hard to claim as mine for the past two years. All I know is that these days my body comes first. I work hard and I sleep well. I eat good solid food, fresh out of the ground. I sit in the bathtub and let the hot water soak into my pores. It doesn’t wash away the dirt.

I am constantly thinking about seeds. Seeds are small and weightless. You can hold a thousand carrot seeds in the palm of your hand. A carrot seed is smaller than the pupil of an eye. It carries everything it needs to become a hard orange root, one that will survive all winter with enough nutrients to support the plant in the next spring. Seeds become sustenance. They are a mystery too deep and too beautiful for my eyes. This morning harvesting radishes I had to stop working and kneel in the dirt and say a prayer for transformation.

The moon has been so sharp recently, sharp enough to cut through my eyes. The earth is a hard teacher and the fall makes no promises. I don’t know what this is about. I only know that sustenance comes from the earth, that prayer is sometimes only as meaningful as what you put in your mouth. What I am trying to say is that food is sometimes as simple as it seems, and to go without it is sometimes as simple as it seems. What I’m trying to say is that fasting is complicated and hunger is universal. There is a time for fasting. There is a time to go without, to cleanse the body sweet and clean. There is a time to get down on your knees and put your face to the earth and repent for the mistakes you’ve made and the loves you’ve botched and the meals you haven’t earned, and there is a time to make a promise to yourself and your god and those you love to try again, to get it right the next time around.

But there is also a time for soup and a time for pie. There is also a time to sing blessings to the god that has brought us to this season with enough food to keep on going. There is a time to give our bodies what they need: food to keep them strong and love to keep them shining. These are the hard, solid facts of life: seeds grow into plants and people need food to live. The earth withers without rain and loving is easier over a meal. Everything we put inside our bodies comes out of the earth and everything goes back. Everything grows and everything dies. These are the solid facts, the facts you can’t get around. I can’t ignore them anymore. I can’t get past them. Fasting is too far away from the heavy, hard-to-take grit and wonder of life for me to relate to right now. I can relate to greens and onions in a cast iron skillet. I can relate to dirt-worn hands and muscles hardened by a long season, to folks laughing and drinking beer in little kitchens all over the country, to a hot bath and a good night’s sleep after a long day’s work. I can relate to our need for onions and soup, for the emptiness that hunger leaves behind. There is only gratitude in my heart right now, and wonder, and prayers upon prayers: there is food on my table and that is enough, that is more than enough, that is as much as a blessing as I can ask for.

I don’t know what this is about. I love the cold mornings. I love the way my breath tunnels out of my mouth and collides with the air. I love the way apple pie makes my kitchen smell. I love the weight of an onion in my head, the texture of tomatoes, the smell of dirt on my fingertips. I am making promises, too, as the days lengthen and my heart turns to nights. I promise to be more tender than I have been. I promise to walk slowly, to eat with a full heart and all my muscles. I want to be gentler, quieter, more courageous. Everything grows and everything dies. There is a god who goes hungry at every table. I love the color of cooked onions and the smell of fall at sunset when I’m leaving the farm with a basket of fresh corn. The earth gives and the earth takes away. I’m only trying to live by her rules. I want to bake more bread and give away more cookies. I want to give away the scent of the sauce while it simmers down. I want to give away the sunlight in the early morning while I’m digging carrots. The only god I know is the god of growing things. The only prayer I know how to speak is the prayer of pie and soup. It isn’t the prayer you’re supposed to pray on Yom Kippur but it’s the only prayer in my heart right now. These are the days of awe. I have nothing and everything to forgive, nothing and everything to repent. If I have wronged myself this year and wronged the ones I love, I will make it up to them in pies. The only god I know is the god of growing things, the god that lives in the dirt, the god of turnips and apples and rain. A hard-working tough-voiced unforgiving god. The only god I know is the god that transforms seeds from white pebbles you can hold in the palm of your hand to glistening heads of lettuce and gleaming red onions. This is the god I am going to pray to on Saturday, the most sacred day of the year, in the kitchen.

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