It's good to be home. We spent last week on the road, reading Jam Today
at the lovely Capitola Book Café, and the especially swell Skylight Books in Los Angeles, and I wore so many hats (EAP publisher, writer, online mag editor
, driver, travel agent, dog wrangler, wife, publicist, marketing director, producer, snack cook, cleanup crew, etc. — you know, like a normal woman's life, come to think of it) that it felt like a bit of a balancing act to keep them all stacked up there, more or less upright, as we drove up and down the state. And when the readings were done, Alex and the dogs and I came back up the Eastern Sierras, the long way home, soon to be seasonally impassable. When we started out in Los Angeles, it was about ninety degrees, then, heading up the high desert, it got more and more autumnal. And on our first overnight stop, we found ourselves in a small, perfectly round hot spring on the side of an enormous mountain, looking down a steep ravine to a rushing river, and across a long brown gold valley to a harvest moon rising on the other side.
It was very quiet. Which is always a good thing after the millions of impressions that pour in when you've spent a week plunging into other people's lives (while clutching all those hats at the same time). Quiet's a good thing to let all the impressions I get — or at least, the ones I get — sink down... and then come back up, mixing in unexpected ways, to tell you — or at least, to tell me — things I wouldn't have otherwise have seen.
There was this one question I wanted answered for myself, that I planned on brooding about when I had a moment of quiet like this, and that was how to think of all those hats I was carting around from place to place... and how, maybe, to combine them into one (easier to carry, easier to wear, more fun all 'round). But I found I couldn't think about any of that in that wild mountain hot spring. In fact, I found I couldn't think of anything much at all. My mind insisted on being a lovely blank like the evening sky was a blank (except for that spectacular moon, of course). That was all right. I just lay there lazily.
But, of course, nothing you do is ever a blank. There was all that bubbling going on under the surface of the water.
With all of that, and with the mountain air, I thought I'd sleep well last night in the motel. But instead I had all sorts of crazy dreams. And when I woke up, I was surprised to find myself thinking about having been raised a Catholic, and how grateful I was for the many things that came to me out of that tradition — while, at the same time, how automatically and vigorously I'd rejected other parts of it, the ones taught to me at school and in church, and even at home, that were obvious fantasies and sometimes downright lies.
It made me laugh that I was thinking about this in the motel in the high desert there, because it seemed so very off the subject of the problem I had set myself to work out when I was alone again — which was how being the publisher of Exterminating Angel Press, and of three books of such disparate subject matter (Mike Madrid's history of American superheroines, The Supergirls; Brian Griffith's analysis of how the story of Jesus has been shrunk to fit, Correcting Jesus; and my own book about... food?... my life?... how food fits in my life?), and being the writer of a book that ironically gets filed in the same section as Martha Stewart, Mario Batali, and Rachael Ray, how that all fit together.
But, of course, one's instincts rush along a different river bed than one's more cultivated mind, a lot of the time... though, if lucky, they join up again at another bend down the way.
So it was in the morning in the motel, I think, as I lay there thinking about being Catholic when what I wanted to think about, find a simple answer to, was how does being a publisher and writer of this particular book, fit together? Is there a way to get rid of all those hats and turn them into just one?
So I lay there, the way you do mornings in motels, half listening to the sound of early risers getting in their cars and driving away, and wondering idly if the lobby tea was going to taste of coffee the way it does in most motels and all airplanes, when it was suddenly and unexpectedly like all the hats I'd brought in that room with me (which, in my mind, lay scattered all over the motel floor and would have to be collected and repacked before we, too, got up and drove away), it was as if they all rose up by themselves and turned into just one hat. I don't know, a beret, or, no, a small warm round black polar fleece hat. And that one hat was a Catholic hat, of all things — a Catholic being, so they've always told me, the one thing you never stop being. Which I never believed up till then. Because I thought being a Catholic meant you secretly believed non-Catholics were inferior to Catholics, that people the Pope disagreed with (like perfectly nice lesbian couples, or girls who'd had abortions rather than ruin their lives) were going to burn in hell forever, or that Jesus was some kind of demented demon who, on Judgment Day, was going to appear in the sky and herd everyone into the celestial concentration camp of his choosing.
Well, shit, I knew I didn't believe any of that. (And I sure as hell wasn't going to be told to go anywhere by some sanctimonious nutcase, no matter how All-Powerful and All-Good everyone around me blindly insisted him to be).
But it turns out — and it kills me that it's taken me 54 years, one frantic week on the road, and a sunset hour in a hot spring on a mountain top to see it — that being a Catholic is not about believing all that crap, or about going to Mass on Sunday and listening to an old man who knows nothing about it lecturing the congregation on family life. No. It turns out it's quite true: I've never left off being a Catholic, not for one minute, not through all the years of enjoying sex, and loving my gay friends, and refusing to believe that people of other religions haven't experienced the true way. Being a Catholic, of course (I can't believe I didn't see this clearly at all), is another way into Reality, one of countless, wonderful others. And as it was the one I was born into, it was the one I was using... the path I was taking, whether I thought I was taking it or not. It made me laugh to realize I had never, even in my most radically free moments, wandered very far away.
I got up to walk the dogs, and found it had snowed overnight, the first snow of the year, always an exciting moment, unexpected and silent, and there was snow dusted all over the mountains where the night before I'd lain in the hot water enjoying an autumn breeze. And I found I had the answer to the problem I'd set myself right there in hand, like a single, well-loved hat I pulled out of my jacket pocket to keep my head warm against the cold.
All the EAP books, they're all Catholic books, really, at bottom. For what's Mike Madrid's The Supergirls, but a Marionist protest that the goddess doesn't get equal honor with the god? (And I can still hear Mike complaining to me one day, idly when we'd finished talking business, that he could never figure out why, if the Virgin Mary was the Mother of God, why she wasn't Mrs. God, too.) And Brian Griffith's Correcting Jesus is one long, patient, and loving observation of how a wonderful story gets hijacked to control naughty children, instead of being the support of autonomous adults that it really was meant to be.
Then there's my own book, Jam Today. That made me laugh to think about again. Because it looks like a cookbook, but what it's really about is a bedrock belief that the world is a big family table where everyone should get together to eat and talk and decide what's best for all... and not just a dour affair of enforced table manners and nutrition, where the man with the beard at the head of the table runs the show.
One of my wonderful American sisters in law, on reading Jam Today, wrote me that it was "the most Catholic book I've read in a long time." And she said, "What's the Belloc doggerel? 'Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine/There's laughter and music and good red wine/At least I've always thought it so/Benedicimus Domino' — it seems to me that that's the spirit in which it's written..."
I told all this to the Beloved Vegetarian Atheist Husband over a good breakfast in the little high desert café across from the motel, and he laughed and said, "You should blog about that. Who knows, maybe you'll get some Jesuits to follow you on Twitter." (Interested Jesuits, and Franciscans, and Dominicans, and Poor Clares, for that matter, can find us at @EAPress.)
(And I know this was probably supposed to be about food, so here's what's on the woodstove cooking for our Homecoming Dinner as I write: Tomato Soup.
5 chopped cloves of garlic warmed in olive oil.
Add 1 large can of tomatoes, cut them up with scissors in the pot.
1 carton frozen broth (in this case, veggie broth I had in the freezer).
A sploosh of white wine from the bottle left in the fridge.
Cook till warm and tomatoey, about an hour. Salt. Add Basil and chopped marjoram from the garden, because they won't last much longer in this weather. Eat with toasted cheese bread bought in a Bishop bakery on the way up the Eastern Sierras. Sleep well.)
And as I'm getting ready to send this off to the wonderful folk at Powell's, I've just got the news that Sy Newhouse has closed Gourmet. Well, I know what I'm writing about tomorrow...