Monday, April 09, 2012

Three Feet Ahead

In the last few weeks, I’ve tried to write about many things. Seared fennel things. Roasted pork chop things. Whole wheat chocolate chip cookie things. Cooking things. Eating things. The thing about how my mind wanders into the feathery netherworld of recipes, or novels, or both, when I walk along the Charles River to work. 

But I haven’t been able to get anything down onto this Word document. Not anything that isn’t a poorly veiled excuse. An attempt to kill time before I write about what I’m actually thinking about.

I’ll just get down to business. Here I go.

Matt and I broke up.

There is it. That sentence. It’s a short sentence. Just five words. Words ridiculously painful in their brevity. As I typed them, I could feel my insides seize up, clench tight, prevent me from moving, feeling, thinking beyond the sound of my fingers clacking on my computer.

Click, clack, click.


When Julie Powell, author of Julie and Julia, separated from her husband of seven years, she moved into a small sublet apartment. On her first night there, she ordered a pizza. “There's a New York rule, one of those we osmose through the soles of our stylish yet affordable boots, that on your first night in a new apartment, you must order takeout,” she wrote in the New York Times. There’s another rule, she added, and that is on your second night, you cook. Powell made garlic soup.

On the first night in my new apartment, the one I moved into about a month after leaving Matt, who was my boyfriend for almost five years, I didn’t want to order pizza. Or anything else. Take-out seemed too sterile, too greasy and cold.

Cooking for just one, however, felt foreign and strange. I had grown so used to cooking meals with Matt—big meals, rich meals, ones that would satisfy a burly man who believed red meat and potatoes were all you really needed to survive. I didn’t even have a table in my new place. My empty, echoing place. The apartment is a studio, but a big studio, and despite the fact that I grew up in a cavernous suburban house in farm-town Massachusetts, no place has ever felt so large.

In the end, I roasted a sweet potato on a piece of foil in the oven until it was tender and sweet. I ate it sitting on my bed. With barbecue sauce. That was all I had in the fridge.


They call it a “broken heart,” and it wasn’t until recently that I began to think about that term as more than a metaphor.

Matt and I met when I was just beginning to take my writing seriously, when I was just beginning to feel confident in my returning sense of smell, in the direction I wanted to take my career. We finished graduate school side by side, and then stayed together when I worked in California and he in Europe. He was there when I sold my book proposal. I was there when he was called back off the Individual Ready Reserves to serve his third tour of duty at war, that year in Afghanistan. He has been a huge part of my writing. A huge part of this website. A huge part of my life. In fact, I’m not sure I remember who I am alone.

At a certain point it no longer matters what happened, who is to blame for what, why, when, or how. Because in the end it’s just you. Facing the end of something, something big, something way bigger than you ever were alone. And it hurts. Emotionally, of course. But physically, it hurts, too.

In those first few weeks I remember wondering how it was possible that the decision to go our separate ways could be so physically painful. This decision didn’t touch my skin. It didn’t make contact with my muscles or my bones. Yet I sat on my bed, waiting for that goddamn sweet potato to bake, and my body ached.

Of course, I began to read.

“… [It] seems difficult to imagine that these social experiences that do not physically wound us could truly lead to the same kind of pain as a broken bone or an aching stomach,” writes scientist Naomi Eisenberger in her 2012 paper, Broken Hearts and Broken Bones: A Neural Perspective on the Similarities Between Social and Physical Pain. “However, accumulating evidence demonstrates that experiences of social and physical pain actually rely on some of the same neurobiological and neural substrates.”

So there’s evidence that the same parts of the brain light up when you feel social pain as when you feel physical pain. When Matt and I split, I felt like I was ripping my arm out of the shoulder socket, or cutting my leg off at the knee, or tearing a pattern of tiny holes in my gut, or all of that, or maybe none of that, but nonetheless it was substantial and consuming and physical all at the same time. My brain, it seems, was processing it in a similar way.

Diane Ackerman puts it more succinctly. “That’s why being spurned by a lover hurts all over the body, but in no place you can point to,” she recently wrote in the Times. “Or rather, you’d need to point to the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex in the brain, the front of a collar wrapped around the corpus callosum, the bundle of nerve fibers zinging messages between the hemispheres that register both rejection and physical assault.”


I’ve been re-reading Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. That is, in fact, what I’ve been doing this morning, this Sunday Easter morning, here at my new kitchen table, for the last hour. As I write, it’s early. My head is fuzzy. My throat feels a little swollen. I’m not sure if this is because of spring allergies, or because of the (one too many) cocktails I shared last night with my friend Mary. But it’s sunny outside. I can hear a student at the nearby music school playing the tuba—long, slow groans that should probably make me feel sad, but for some reason don’t, probably because it’s sunny, I’m surrounded by books, and this afternoon I plan to bake a cake. Filling this apartment with the warm scents of molasses and coffee and sour cherries will no doubt make me feel a bit more at home.

Anyway, Lamott’s book is important to me, as I know it’s important to countless others. I also know that I’ve written about this book before, and others have written about it, too, perhaps so much so that what I’m about to type out is insufferably cliché. But I don’t care. I’m a re-reader. Especially when I’m sad, I will return to the books that moved me, that helped to define me, that brought me to where I am today.

Lamott writes:

E.L. Doctorow once said that “writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” You don’t have to see where you’re going, you don’t have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice about writing, or life, I have ever heard.

On the next page she writes about an oft-repeated story, the title story, the one that helps her to get a grip:

... thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”

That’s what I’m trying to do, too.


Sam said...


gwen said...

hug x 2.

Miss T said...

Im crying. Ive been there. Just know it gets better. Bird by bird.

Leciawp said...

Oh, my dear. If you need a change of scenery, come visit me in Seattle. xoxo

Carly and Debra said...

So sorry to hear about this, you wrote about it so beautifully though. I can definitely relate cx

Molly said...

Thanks, friends. The good news is that I feel a lot better for having finally written about it. Just taking it one day at a time...

Mary said...

You already know my extensive thoughts, but I'll say again -- brave and awesome, Molls. Brave and awesome.

Gwen Papp said...

I have been there. It's awful. Hang in there. I'm so sorry.

Jess said...

So proud of you, M.

nicole said...

Oh Molly ... Thank you for sharing. You will bird by bird it every day, and beyond; I know it. Thinking of you, and sending love.

A Plum By Any Other Name said...

I am so sorry to hear you are going through this awful, awful thing that I wouldn't wish on anyone. After a breakup, I found my way to blogging and it has been a wonderful way to enjoy cooking for one while also getting to share it with others. Lamott is a smart woman. And you are too. Bird by bird (and, occasionally, the one too many cocktails) will help get you through. :)

Molly said...

Mary, Jess, Gwen, Nicole, Plum: thank you.

Anonymous said...

Truly sorry Molly. I think of Scarlet O'Hara's line "tomorrow is another day" when I'm deep in hurt. I hope your tomorrows get brighter.

Amy said...

I am so sorry to read that you have had your heart broken. Mine was shattered a few months ago when my partner told me he didn't love me anymore. I had almost changed my entire life and planned a huge move from Australia to the US just so we could be together. Picking up the pieces and starting life all over again by yourself does hurt just as much as a broken bone. No use in me reading 'Bird by Bird' - he gave me a copy, inscribed with love.
I hope that your new home proves to be a haven for you. A place you can reconcile the pieces of yourself and know that you are more than what you lost. You are greater for having lived with love, even after it is gone.

Delicious Dishings said...

Did you bake that cake? Sounds like the apartment is feeling more like home. I know how hard it must have been to write this, but I'm so happy that you're feeling better after writing it. Always here for you. xoxo

Molly said...

thank you, sharon.

and, amy, i'm sorry to hear about your own pain. picking up the pieces certainly sucks, to put it not so eloquently.

megan, i did make that cake, and it freaking rocked. so, there's that, at least :)

Pam said...

I'm sorry for your pain, Molly, and Matt's, too. It is not an easy time for either of you. I just finished your book and was so inspired! Wishing you peace in the days ahead. . .who knows what adventures await you?

Paula Feldman said...

In the boot-shaped peninsula in Europe where I live there is a saying pretty much like the bird-by-bird one...un passo alla volta per arrivare...our one step at a time. -huge hugs for your 'new' life experience...getting on with it one cake at a time...P

Jacqui said...

I think you've got it right, Molly -- bird by bird, day by day. This post is a big step. xo

Holly said...

Dear Molly - I was so excited to check back and see a post...and then when I read it (wonderfully written, as always) I felt terrible for you. Perhaps it's a cliche, but it's a good one to remember: "G-d writes straight with crooked lines." You'll see.

Be well, and take it "bird-by-bird" as you (and Lamott) said. That little phrase went immediately into my quote book. Even in your pain you are inspiring. You're a singular person and one I'm glad to "know".

Hugs, Dear Girl.


Punkrgrl said...

Another member of the 'Bird by Bird' club who is new to your blog. Very sorry for your pain. ((Hugs))

Sara said...

hi, I've never seen your blog before, but what a fine post! I'm going to forward it to my niece, who is having similar feelings. Thank you for writing about it so well. I love it that you referred to things I'm familiar with. Real food for thought.