Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Other Madeleines

Sometimes it takes time for the reality of one's circumstances to fully hit one.  When we first moved here, I assumed that my life would sort of go on the same way it always had, just in a much smaller place.  I imagined, for instance, without really considering it, that I would have no problem walking into a deli and getting a coffee and a prune danish.  But then, after a while, I realized that there were no delis here.  Is it the same everywhere outside of major urban areas?

So I made my coffee at home, and I even made prune danish a few times, a laborious process, but worth it.

Still, it's hard to describe the jolt you feel when you realize that you can no longer do the ordinary things you once did.  In New York, most people can legitimately claim membership in a handful of communities, into and out of which they slip with relative ease. These might include one's friends from church or work, say, or the other mothers, like oneself, generally shunned at the playground (in my neighborhood, these included the German woman married to a Jamaican man, whose toddler daughter was completely bald from alopecia; the Irish-born woman who'd lived there for years and had many friends, but who was rejected when she adopted an attachment-parenting philosophy; and, perhaps most problematic of all in my majority-Irish neighborhood, the black Englishwoman).  For me, they also included my classical musician and singer colleagues; the brilliant young university-student mother with autism who lived downstairs and was my son's first babysitter (and, for her own reasons, a fellow outsider in our neighborhood); my professors and colleagues in my doctoral program; and the community of solid friendships I was able to construct with a few other women, including Really Rosie. Here, I can't even seem to make friends with anyone at church, and the post-kindergarten pickup line is not shaping up very promisingly; the other mothers seem to know one another already, and I'm prepared to be shunned when it's discovered that I'm the mother of the only child with autism in this otherwise mainstream class.

I found myself with time on my hands this morning, and I decided to go to the local Catholic hospital, to which I can walk, and do Adoration in their chapel.  One of my main incentives was, admittedly, that the hospital cafeteria carries these fantastic chocolate-filled croissants that are reminiscent of the ones sold at many a New York deli, with one of which I anticipated rewarding myself afterwards.  In the chapel I met an elderly nun I know who's originally from New Jersey, and I poured out to her my tale of crushing loneliness.  But as we talked, it dawned on me, as it does every so often, that God has uprooted me from everything I once knew and loved in His mercy. For everyone who wishes to ascend must descend. 

In my former life, after many years of struggle and hard work, I had achieved a certain level of accomplishment and a certain small amount of recognition.  And when I entered my doctoral program and began teaching college, things seemed, for the first time, completely right; I felt as if I had finally found what I was meant to do.  When I met my husband, got married in the Church, and had a beautiful baby boy nine months and three days after our wedding, I felt even more confirmed in the rightness of it all.

And then, multiple pregnancy losses.  And then, we moved here.  And then no more teaching, or friends, or community. And secondary infertility. And my mother's terminal illness. And my son's autism diagnosis. All these conditions, for now, are ongoing, as is my sense, to quote Saint John of the Cross, of the pervasiveness of "nothing, nothing, nothing."

And now this community has been devastated by flooding resulting from the recent hurricanes. I suspect that, because of the disaster, more people will leave this area, which has already lost half its population in the past twenty years.

Being stripped so bare of everything that I thought made me who I was, being so left to my own meager devices, makes me realize how much I relied on the good opinion of others in my former life, and how much I defined myself by my accomplishments. Here, it seems there is nothing but my daily struggles, mostly of the most mundane kind, but in many ways more challenging than the daily struggles of my former life, which were more easily solved, and whose resolution was so much more readily rewarded (good coffee and pastry, after all, can be had on nearly every street corner back in New York).  I feel so diminished here, and I feel as if God is pushing me to my knees every day.  Though this is painful and is not what I would have sought, it can't be bad.

My new town used to be a manufacturing hub.  That's all gone now, of course, leaving an emptied-out shell of a city.  In the midst of this, for some reason I can't fully comprehend, there is a small, independent coffee roaster here that makes the best coffee I've ever had in my life outside of Italy.  After the days of flooding, feeling rather helpless, I went downtown just to have a coffee there. They had been closed for several days because of ordinances against water use, and were just reopening.  As I was paying for my coffee, my eye fell on a glass cookie jar at the counter, which, to my amazement, was stocked with regina biscuits, a very particular, local, and therefore rarely found Italian cookie -- sesame-covered, delicate and not too sweet, my favorite biscuit of all, far outstripping your margheritas or your anisette cookies -- that I had not seen since I was quite young in Brooklyn, when I used to eat them by the dozen out of a brown paper bag from the local bakery.  I asked the proprietor where these cookies had come from.  From Brooklyn, she told me.  She didn't know the name of the bakery; a friend had brought them. I bought some; they were the same as they always had been.

I sat there with my coffee and my reginas and I wasn't sure whether I should play my usual game of conjuring lost worlds by way of strange-yet-familiar objects, mediating the ghosts of the invisible past with the tangible, the material, the present, as Proust did so famously in the opening pages of Remembrance of Things Past. In the end, though, I decided not to, because I am trying to actively turn my memory over to God, as suggested by the Ignatian "Suscipe" prayer.  I see, indeed, that there is nothing to fall back on but God.  I'm not saying I like this state of affairs, but that's the way it is.


ex-new yorker who has too many Google accounts said...

Did you ever go to Lord's on Flatbush Avenue? That was the "pick something up to bring to holiday dinner with extended family" place for my mother, I think. I wouldn't figure they're Italian by the name, but their (simple) website has pics of what I think of as "Italian" cookies. Aliotta was the Italian bakery I always think of, on Avenue N. I was always kind of tuned out of a lot of the facts of my surroundings even as I remember particular details of them quite well, but this kind of Brooklyn stuff always gets me. I'm just not as good at putting how into words as you are. P.S. We were talking about words that start with B and my 3-year-old said she doesn't like bagels! Even though she's had real ones.

ex-new yorker said...

I'm sorry, I always feel prosaic in response to your depth. Man, isn't this inferiority complex of mine annoying? Anyway, another weird little Brooklyn thing I like to remember is how the Italian bread from one supermarket (which I won't name because I don't want to defame it or anything) tasted like mattress stuffing and the other was good enough to eat all by itself, no sandwich or sauce or anything. My (half-Irish, non-Italian) mother explained it was because Italian ladies did the baking at the latter store, Irish ladies at the former. I also miss rolls with poppy seeds (buttered, like bagels. Poppy seed was never a top bagel choice for me, but I loved these done right, as embarrassing as it was to forget they were probably stuck in your teeth all day). It was probably the same with the baking locations but I don't remember exactly where my mother got them. If they sell those here, I don't know where. It's just become another thing of the past for me.

Pentimento said...

Mine was on Myrtle Ave. and I no longer know what it was called. It was just The Italian Bakery to me.

I've never even heard of someone not liking bagels! Maybe she'll learn.

Rodak said...


Elise said...

This is a lovely reflection.

elena maria vidal said...

Do I ever know how you feel.

GretchenJoanna said...

I hardly know what to say, this post strikes me so deeply where I also am feeling a loss, not the same, yet the same...We know it is God's mercy, but it is painful nonetheless, learning to do without, being achingly lonely, so that we can free up more of that inner space for the Holy Spirit, whose infiniteness will pour into as much as we empty out of self.

I think those Italian sesame biscuits might be the same sort I made last Christmas, and they were awfully good! Thank you SO very much for sharing this good word - and I'm happy for your coffee and cookies!

Anonymous said...

A couple of thoughts that came to mind as I read,
My spiritual director always reminds me of the Scripture where it says when I was a child I dressed myself, but there will come a time when God will take you by the belt buckle and you will follow. Something to that effect, meaning that as we spiritually mature we will by directed not by our own will. This is tough to do.
The other thing that came to mind is if you have not, you must read Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. You might be able to appreciate it.

Pentimento said...

Thanks, all. RCM, I'm going to the library tomorrow and I'll look for the Kingsolver book.

Clare Krishan said...

Wow, talk about serendipity - contemplating today's Gospel reading* pulled me right up (having read this post last thing before retiring to bed my mind reverberated -- recalling, not actually hearing -- the string resonances from Paul Schwartz's "Suscepit Israel" Luke 1:54**

Consider how the Latin (see URL below) susceperit is an attempt to honor the hermeneutic of the aorist Greek δέξηται, the 'narrator personal perfectable' tense of reception of what is offered (dexetai in the Greek middle voice .. stresses the high level of self-involvement (interest) involved with the "welcoming-receiving", to quote an online concordance I found Googling) which in English is not possible - receperit/receive is the same expression regardless of perspective (imperfect temporal, ie from the earthly vantage point of we creature/actors vs eternal perfectable, ie the heavenly vantage point of our Creator/power-to-act)

If we keep our hands full of temporal goods (whether they be material things or mental things ie memories) we have no way to take up (Simeon, Luke 2:28) the eternal goods the Lord offers, yet he takes up whatever we surrender and unburden ourselves of.

Your delight in recognizing the delectable cookie was His gift that day to raise your spirits! Now your soul knows how its magnified (ie delights in) recognizing such delectable gifts (spiritual eyecandy aka consolations) - one was enough for Simeon after a lifetime of yearning to utter 'nunc dimittis' - chuckle!

* http://www.newadvent.org/bible/luk009.htm verses 46-50

** track 8 of his Magnificat-homage CD "State of Grace II"
... puerum suum recordatus misericordiae suae
Sicut locutus est ad patres nostros Abraham et semini eius in saecula

He hath holpen his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy;
As he spake to our fathers, to Abraham, and to his seed forever.

Clare Krishan said...

but our seed may not be among them...

this being the week that the HSS would have the US take up (dexethai???) mandatory purchases of mutual financial instruments that obligate funding sterilization and contraception with no option to decline what offends (to turn away from sin). If we Catholics 'take receipt' of this tyrannical act, we cannot be surprised when our faith will be "contracepted/sterilized" in other areas of life... see http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/religious-liberty/conscience-protection/index.cfm
(act now, deadline is Friday 30th)

Clare Krishan said...

pls excuse/ignore comments you consider too strident, a venal sinner, me
Here's BXVI recently on the inconceivable commercium:
The Christ event includes the inconceivable fact of what the Church Fathers call a commercium, an exchange between God and man, in which the two parties – albeit in quite different ways – both give and take, bestow and receive. The Christian faith recognizes that God has given man a freedom in which he can truly be a partner to God, and can enter into exchange with him. At the same time it is clear to man that this exchange is only possible thanks to God’s magnanimity in accepting the beggar’s poverty as wealth, so as to make the divine gift acceptable, given that man has nothing of comparable worth to offer in return."


Anonymous said...

Hey, ex-new yorker...
I used to work in the Brooklyn College library and the elderly lady I used to work with would give me a dollar or two and ask me would I please "....run over to Lord's and buy her a little something, a cupcake or danish or something..."

It's still there.

And yeah, all my birthday cakes used to come from Aliotta's. But when I was a kid I preferred Ebinger's blackout cake!!


ex-new yorker said...

Nya: Funny, I just happened to scroll to see if there were more comments on this older thread. I remember getting Ebinger's sometimes, but our blackout cake was always Entenmann's. I hadn't even thought of that name in so long, blackout cake, but the other day I was reading about Entenmann's, which I didn't know when living there originated in Brooklyn, and saw that it's one of their discontinued products. :( My mother still goes to an Entenmann's outlet, on Troy Avenue, I think. (We lived in walking distance of BC and I attended in the late '90s.)

Anonymous said...

Good ol' days, fugheddaboudit! I went to BC in the 80s and both my family and my husbands family all came from there and some still live there. (he was from Flatbush, I was in the "fancier" Marine Park, lol!)

From what some in-laws tell me, all ex-Brooklynites need to go to The Brooklyn Board (google it, its the first thing that comes up) and there are SO many people there, you'll find someone you know, from school, neighborhood, parish, etc. I had a ton of friends over on NY Ave, Ave J area. And i just recently got back in touch. No one understands you like other Brooklynites!


ex-new yorker said...

I've seen the Brooklyn Board! I think one of my sister's old class photos was on there, my late aunt's graduation photo, and maybe photos of a cousin or two.

So I guess it was a decade or so later that I grew up, but I lived super close to your NY Ave./Ave J. friends, 2 blocks up numerically and up one-two letters of the alphabet. (I cling tenuously to anonymity here, so I may as well not put my exact old address, right?) Went to OLHC school but attended Mass later on and got married at STA, which I suppose was probably your parish if you were Catholic (I don't know) and from Marine Park.

Thanks for the moment of virtual connection with someone from the homeland.