I took a bus to Boston a few days before Christmas. It was a long ride. We bumped slowly along the highway toward my mother's home while a vent at my elbow blew hot air into my face. I meant to spend time writing my book, but I was feeling anxious and tired after too many late nights and early mornings. I sunk into my seat and just didn't want to worry about work. I didn't want to worry about Matt or about the approaching holidays. I wanted to disengage. So I did, as I often do: In a book.
The word "disengage," I know, sounds cold and technical, like a term used by a doctor or in a lab. My mother is a psychoanalyst whose influence follows me to more places than I often realize. But when I say I want to disengage, I do mean it in a cold and technical way. I want to shut off my brain and no longer register my emotions. For just a few moments, an hour or two, I want to float off into the netherworld of a novel, a movie, an afternoon concentrating on a recipe in the kitchen. I don't want to think about my book or about Matt in Afghanistan. I do want to leave all feelings of warmth behind, because they are what gets me so anxious and afraid.
So, as the bus crawled over the George Washington Bridge, I picked up a novel, a heavy hardcover called The Northern Clemency by Philip Hensher, and I disengaged. I didn't put it down until we pulled into South Station five hours later. Set in an industrial city outside London, it's an intense, epic story of two families that sprawls over three decades. It's dark, evocative and exactly what I was looking for. Yet I hardly made a dent in it, despite the hours on the bus. I sat crushed between the window and a large woman who, after a brief pit stop at a Connecticut McDonalds, ate her Filet-o-Fish in such excruciatingly small bites that the scent of fry oil and tartar sauce seemed to stick to my jeans and nestle in my hair.
Still, I got to read a lot this week. I escaped further into Hensher, as well as into Mary Karr's memoir Lit. I lost myself for hours under the lights of the Christmas tree with a mug of coffee and a hardcover book--the kind that creaks deliciously when opened--positioned on my lap.
This week I caught up on e-mails and went on long runs through the melting snow banks around Jamaica Pond. My mother, her boyfriend, my brother and I opened presents under the tree, fueled by homemade sticky buns and champagne. We baked cookies and listened to music. I slept later than I have in months. It was a relaxing and festive week. But stressful, too.
The holidays, as I've written before, are hard when someone you love is away at war. There's an undertone of sadness and fear to every moment of fun. I can't help but feel a twinge of guilt with each smile, with each cookie fresh from the oven, with each plate passed over the table that was laden with roast pork and smashed potatoes. There's a part of me that wants to disengage all the time. This week I was happy to have that chance.
Aside from my books, I often escape in the kitchen. And this week I cooked a lot. For me, cooking comes in easily manageable steps, like the eight-count sequences of a choreographed dance practiced hundreds of times. It relaxes me to stand over a simmering pot, to watch a chocolate souffle rise gracefully in the oven. When I'm cooking, I don't have to think. It's all about the physical present--the sound of meat hitting the pan, the scent of tomato sauce bubbling away.
This week I fried eggs for my brother to eat for breakfast. I stirred a thick beige pot of cauliflower soup. I made a sweet potato pie studded with a coconut streusel and a lasagna thick with spinach and ricotta cheese. Late on Christmas Eve, as the clock moved on toward midnight, I kneaded the sticky bun dough, which would rise overnight in the fridge. It was soft and supple, like whipped cream. I rolled it out into rectangles, and then into tight rounds filled with butter and pecans. I slept deeply, and the next morning I baked the glaze-lined pans, which filled the house with the scent of cinnamon and brown sugar.
I took the bus back to New York a few days ago. I sat next to my brother, who watched episodes of The Office on his computer while I read my book. I stuck with Karr's Lit on this ride, which is a tough and honest memoir about her struggle with alcoholism and a traumatic past. She is an eloquent and brutal writer--brutal about herself and those around her--and I began to feel a bit uncomfortable as I read. Am I lacking some sort of honesty with myself if I so often want to disengage? I wondered. But I only worried for a moment. Mainly, I just read.
Yesterday I went grocery shopping in Brooklyn. I'm cooking a New Year's Eve dinner for a few friends tonight, and I spent that morning delighting in the menu planning, in the meticulous timing of steps needed to cook several dishes for a crowd. I've never been a huge fan of New Year's. I find it hard for the evening to live up to its hype. But I do want to celebrate in my own way, quietly and sincerely. 2009 has been a difficult year and I'm ready for it to be over.
So I walked down the street from Trader Joe's to Key Foods, nimbly avoiding snow banks while talking to my mother on the phone. I told her about what I planned to cook, and how I planned to serve it. I was excited, and I gabbled nonstop.
When I paused to breathe she asked: "Did you hear about the suicide bomb in Afghanistan?"
"What?" I hadn't looked at the computer in a few hours. "No."
"I saw it on the New York Times website," she said, explaining that several Americans had been killed in the blast. "The bomb was in Khost, and I didn't know where that was in relation to Matt, so I looked it up and it's close."
I immediately grew cold, the fear seeping into my gut like ice.
I knew that Matt probably wasn't in Khost. But I did know that he had been there before. I wondered what had happened. I wondered who had died. I immediately went home to see. Luckily, an e-mail from Matt was waiting for me, reassuring me that he was all right. But as I read it I knew there were others like me out there--others who would not be so blessed.
The holidays have allowed me to escape, to forget, to disengage from much of what has been difficult this year. But as 2009 turns to 2010, the war rages on. People continue to die. Tonight, as I cook the meal that suddenly began to hold much less appeal, I will be thinking about them.