Sunday, March 18, 2012

(pain) perdu dans le labyrinthe

Last year on Ash Wednesday, D and I went to a service at a local Episcopal church. The rector had encouraged attendees to arrive early enough to allow plenty of time to walk the labyrinth that had been set up on the floor of the fellowship hall. The circular puzzle itself was painted in purple onto an enormous canvas drop cloth, and the path was just wide enough for one person at a time to walk, single file, through its serpentine loops. Silently, in the dimmed light, we slipped off our shoes, waited a couple of minutes for the person in front of us to gain a little distance, and then entered the maze ourselves. Because multiple people were traveling the labyrinth at the same time, occasionally I would brush by someone as he or she passed, going the opposite direction. It took longer than I thought it would. I admit, I lost my sense of reverence at a couple of points and felt anxious to just finish the thing.

I really hope there's not a minotaur
waiting in the middle of this.
In that labyrinth, there was only the one path. The point wasn't making the right choices. It was slowly and meditatively navigating a series of predetermined twists and turns. I might have been able to see where the next about-face would take me, but I couldn't see beyond that. I would only have been able to anticipate further if I could have viewed the entire thing from above. At ground level, where I was, all I could do was simply take the next few steps and trust that I would eventually make my way out of the maze.

There is a beautifully anxious prose poem by Tomas Tranströmer called "Answers to Letters." In it, he writes: "Sometimes an abyss opens between Tuesday and Wednesday but twenty-six years could pass in a moment. Time is not a straight line, it's more of a labyrinth, and if you press close to the wall at the right place you can hear the hurrying steps and the voices, you can hear yourself walking past on the other side." I find this notion both fearful and fascinating because on some level it feels true. To me it suggests the idea that there is another life, a lost life I didn't live, in which I answered or didn't answer a letter. I chose or didn't choose a job, a friend, a partner, a child. In this other life, some combination of choice and circumstance were altered to produce a different result. In that life, Rhea survived her transplant. Her hair grew back. She got married. So did I. Our brother Jeff's children, hers, and mine all play together in that lost life. In it, I'm a different me. That this other life doesn't, as far as I know, exist literally doesn't make it one whit less real. It exists in my mind. Sometimes it haunts me.

Tranströmer's labyrinth is very different from the one I walked at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church. In his model, there are two (or more) hallways running parallel to one another, each containing a version of me, separated forever by a wall through which, faintly, one of us can sometimes hear the other walking past. It's an anxious prospect. I chose something else in that life. Or something chose me. Or I made no choice at all. Which is also a choice.

Yes, I know, I know. Gwyneth Paltrow already dramatized this idea for us—with a passable British accent and dramatically different hairstyles so that we could keep the two versions of her straight—in Sliding Doors. But bear with me if you will. After all, not only do I have at least one other life. There are simultaneously many Heather Akerses. 

Do you periodically Google your own name? Oh, admit it. And, for practical reasons - i.e. to keep tabs on what potential employers, exes, and would-be lovers would find if they searched for you - you probably should. A quick search of my name yields my LinkedIn profile and my RateMyProfessor reviews, which is reassuring (though also, in the case of the latter site, sometimes worrisome). At any rate, it's the me I know.

But click on Google Images and the plot thickens. The first two hits are a couple of mug shots of Heather Akers from Florida: a young woman with hollow eyes and impossible cheekbones who has dealt in stolen property and violated her probation. Heather Akers also lives a double life as the owner of a winery in Virginia. Facebook tells me that she is a VP at the National Bank of Arizona. She played Police Officer in her only acting gig, a horror flick called Hell-ephone. Moreover, she is a massage therapist, drawing upon her lifelong love of horses and her training in Swedish massage, neuromuscular therapy, and kinesiology in order to administer relief and healing to human and equine survivors of abuse and trauma. 

To put it in Oscar Wilde's terms, I guess you could say Heather Akers is a confirmed Bunburyist

Early on in the evolution of Gmail, D sent me an invitation to join, so I was lucky enough to claim the username that spelled out just my full first and last names: no punctuation, no weird characters, no numbers. Easy to remember and share with others. Easy, as well, for others to confuse - including Gmail, which often sends me emails intended for the Heather with the period or the hyphen or the underscore between her first and last names. 

Did you know that somewhere in northeastern Alabama, Heather Akers recently had a baby? She's wearing a cute pink headband with elastic ruching on it. Heather Akers likes The Neverending Story and Diana Ross (well, actually, that seems right). Heather lives in Kentucky. She lives in Iowa. She lives in Ohio, checks out mysteries and math textbooks from the local Middletown Public Library, and owes $23.70 in overdue fines. She has an Etsy shop, too, only hers is based in Ft. Myers and called Creative Kiddos. In December, Heather Akers was cordially invited to a Cookies and Cocoa holiday party by the Manchesters of Frederick, Maryland. The mother of Heather Akers sent her an email just before Christmas: 

Which one is me? Well, all of us are Heather Akers.

Several years ago, emails also began arriving from Our365, a site that helps mothers commemorate the milestones of pregnancy, birth, and their baby's life afterwards. Every week for a couple of years, I would receive an update detailing the progress of first my fetus, and then my baby, and finally my toddler. I've checked, by the way, and the destination email address is correct, so either their computer programmers omitted something when they originally keyed in the address, or one of my friends played a joke on me. I half suspected Mary Jo, my mischievous partner-in-crime from my Montreat College days, who secretly signed me up for the NRA's mailing list (I had never shot or owned a gun before) and left racy pamphlets taped to my dorm room door. I've never unsubscribed from the baby emails because, frankly, it's been kind of cool reading about how things are going for my hypothetical toddler. Our365 and I lost touch for a while—after all, in my parallel life I've been a busy new mother for the past year or so—but this arrived a few months ago: 

Not all of my imaginary children have fared so well. I once dreamed that I had an evil grandmother who had died. She didn't resemble either of my real grandmothers, but was another woman entirely. Her ghost came to me and told me that in order to put her spirit to rest forever, I needed to exhume her body and re-bury it. She gave me very specific instructions for how it was to be done: I was to put her body in the grave and cover it with a layer of gravel, then a layer of dirt, and finally I was to put something that looked like a coal bin upside-down over the mound of earth on top. I performed all these tasks just as she asked, while her apparition hovered over me giving additional directions. When I had almost finished, it suddenly occurred to me that this grandmother had never been someone I could trust and that she'd tricked me many times. In horror, I looked down and realized that instead of re-burying her, I had buried my three-year-old child alive, and the little girl was now dead. I could see her small arm sticking out of the gravel, with its long, red-and-black striped sleeve.

I was in therapy at the time, so I brought in my dream to show to Cindy, my counselor. She pointed out that some theories would argue that all of the characters in my dream were me, not just the obvious "I" from whose point of view the story happened. I was the narrator. I was the evil grandmother. I was the doomed three-year-old in the striped shirt. 

We can be many things, sometimes all at the same time. Walt Whitman phrases this in much more playfully defiant terms in Song of Myself

                        Do I contradict myself?
                     Very well then I contradict myself,
                      (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Literature, in fact, is full of people asking, "Who am I?" When I was working on my dissertation - which examined the novels of D. H. Lawrence in light of the theories of psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva - I found that my favorite parts were the sections where I explored questions of identity. In my introductory chapter, here is what I wrote:

It's not like this was the first time I was drawn to a writer who dealt in shifting identities. When I was a little girl, my favorite book was Little Bear, by Elsa Holmelund Minarik, and one of my favorite stories in the book was "Little Bear Goes to the Moon." Here is an illicit full transcript, but let me also give a synopsis: Little Bear puts on his new "space helmet" (e.g. a cardboard box with metal springs attached to the top) and announces to Mother Bear that he's going to travel to the moon. She tries to dissuade him by reminding him that he is not a bird but rather "a little fat bear cub with no wings and no feathers." Undaunted, Little Bear climbs "to the top of a little tree, a very little tree on the little hill," shuts his eyes, and jumps. When he lands, he assumes that he is walking on the moon. Wandering through a lunar world that looks eerily identical to the one he has just left, he remarks on a lunch that exactly resembles the food on his table at home, and meets a figure who looks just like his earthly mother. Mother Bear plays along, saying, "But who is this? Are you a bear from Earth? Well, my little Bear did the same thing. He put on his space helmet and flew to Earth. So I guess you can have his lunch." When Little Bear gets a bit frightened and tired of the game, he tells her: "Mother Bear, stop fooling. You are my Mother Bear and I am your Little Bear, and we are on Earth, and you know it. Now may I eat lunch?" Though the idea of adventurous new identities and space travel was always thrilling, this moment of recognition and affirmation is the part of the story I really loved. There's a part of me that still wants that: to get to pretend to be a moon man for a little while, and then when I begin to feel anxious, to hear my Mother Bear say to me, "You are my little bear, and I know it. Now eat your lunch, and then you'll have your nap.”

But I'm an adult now. In practical terms, most of the time, I end up being my own Mother Bear—and, often enough, my own evil grandmother, too. And when I ask myself honestly, Do I want my desire to put my finger on my identity, once and for all, to turn me into a "stupid fixed thing like a lamp-post"? I have to admit to myself: Indeed I don't.

If I can even say "I."

And that's why one never stops asking the questions. Or doing the searches. Or jumping off a little tree at the top of a little hill to see which planet one lands on. Or looking through that fifth window in Tranströmer's poem, the one that "faces a black sky, thunder and storm." The abyss. The labyrinth. The lost life. I wonder if the poet is right, wise man: "One day I will answer. One day when I am dead and can at last concentrate. Or at least so far away from here that I can find myself again." But like the toddler who learns and grows everyday in my sister life, who is beginning to understand concepts of space, like "inside" and "outside" and "here" and "there," I'm still fuzzy on time words like "soon." I'll likely never be sure what "me" means.

This picture turned out a bit off-kilter.
But that seems appropriate.
Well, I don't know how to follow that, so here's a recipe. In France, where Julia Kristeva trained as a psychoanalyst, the name for what we call French toast is pain perdu, or "lost bread"—so named, I guess, because it's a way of reclaiming old or stale bread and making it useful and tasty again. 

This makes an excellent breakfast, especially after an existential crisis.

pain perdu à l'orange

1/3 cup half-and-half (fat free is fine)
4 eggs
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1 generous tsp. real vanilla extract
1 tsp. turbinado or regular sugar
pinch of salt
zest of one orange (splurge on organic here, since you're using the peel)
2 tbsp. Cointreau or other orange liqueur (optional)
6 slices sourdough bread
butter, maple syrup, powdered sugar

Whisk together the first seven (or eight) ingredients in a shallow dish. Go ahead and juice the zested orange, while you're at it, so that you have a little glassful to drink with your French toast. :)

Heat a nonstick pan over medium heat. While pan is heating, place two slices of bread in the custard mixture for 30 seconds or so; then turn slices over and let them sit for another 15 seconds or so.

Meanwhile, add enough canola oil to coat the bottom of the pan. Fry soaked bread slices until golden brown on both sides. (This is French toast in the style of Molly Wizenberg's father - it has more fat but turns out deliciously crisp this way. However, if you prefer the little-bit-of-butter method, go right ahead and do it that way. You might want lower heat, though.)

Repeat steps with remaining slices of bread, adding more oil if necessary to the pan. Serve with butter, warmed syrup, and a sprinkling of powdered sugar. 

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