The Gift of Found Time

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“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”
― Annie Dillard

A  little over eight years ago my father’s heart stopped. One minute he was clutching his tennis racquet and waiting for the other doubles team to serve. The next, he was on the floor. His wife, an ex-firefighter and an amazing human being, resuscitated him with the help of friends and a defibrillator installed on the wall of the gym.

Some years before that, my husband took me to Paris. We bought a seven-day metro pass and rode all over the city to see sights and eat food we’d been talking about for months. Then, on the seventh day, the pass expired. After dinner, we took our last ride back to our hotel, packed our bags and wistfully said good night.

The next morning my husband looked at our itinerary and then looked at me. A smile lit up his face.

“We don’t leave until tomorrow.”

For my father, a little more than 2,300 “found” days. For us, one.

I learned as a kid about the concept of “found” fortune. It’s that five-dollar bill in the pocket of last winter’s coat, discovered this winter as you reach for a plastic bag to clean up after the dog. It’s a coin glistening on the asphalt parking lot, a check tucked inside a birthday card from a relative. Unearned, unexpected, a gift.

The question of course is what to do with the windfall.

My husband and I danced down to the metro station, bought a one-day pass each and set out on a completely unscripted day. We got off wherever we wanted. We ate deli in the Jewish section, wandered through the Picasso museum, negotiated the return of my husband’s stolen sunglasses, ate ice cream, walked one more time along the Seine at night. No single thing was particularly romantic or dazzling. Each one added up to a day we’ve never forgotten. The thing we remember most is how time moved slowly, like a river in August. Each minute drifted up to us, sank in, and then passed without urgency. We had no expectations or plans.

Then we came home. Our days rushed at us full of tasks, expectations, plans set in motion, worries, people to care for, deadlines, milestones. The “found” day is a story we tell. It is something we try to recapture when we travel and we do a pretty good job of it, although planning an open day is not quite the same as waking up to the surprise of one. We’ve never managed to stumble on a “found” day at home or work. As I write these words, I wonder why this is.

As for my dad?

I asked him recently how he views the “extra innings” he was granted. We chatted over the phone. His voice in my ear was clear, strong and, as always, a little musical. He always sounds decades younger than the eighty-seven he will turn next month.

“I think about it a lot and how lucky I’ve been. I’m still above the daisies. I am grateful for that.”

We don’t talk about how he has spent his days since “the event.” There are the things I know about: staying engaged in the company he founded with my brother, adopting with his wife two lab-doodles from a rescue organization, walking a few miles every day or working out on a rowing machine in his basement, chopping wood, driving to the dump, practicing jazz on his guitar, swearing at his computer, cooking and eating meals that keep him trim, healthy, and the poster image of the healthy, compliant cardiac patient. He spends time with men who have served in the Marines, as he has. He continues to read as he always has. He has attended funerals of friends and acquaintances. I know there is a boat under construction in his shed, unfinished. I know it bothers him. A lot of things, it turns out, bother him about how he is spending his time.

“I have so many things out there that I have started and haven’t been able to finish and I feel pressured by that and I keep asking myself how I’m going to deal with this.”

“I’m having a huge dialog with myself about some of the things i’ve done since then and not totally happy with myself.”

“I’m taking some time now to sit down and go through all of it in my mind. I am going to be trying to make better decisions.”

A few hours after talking with my father, I am talking to K. who is in tears. The past has got her in its grip and is shaking her in its wolf teeth.

“I’ve made so many bad decisions.” The rest of the thought goes unexpressed: so little time left to alter course.

At 52 she is trying to find her way to the kinds of days she imagines other people enjoy. She wants to work, to love and be loved, to be included in a world that seems closed off to her because of mistakes she has made or decisions she is afraid to make.

The woman who can make me weep with laughter, who can both embarrass and enthrall me with her ability to walk up to total strangers and talk to them as though she’s known them all her life, who has been a rock for others in the face of death, is afraid on this day. She copes with chronic illness. Money is scarce. Too many of the people she has loved or passed significant chunks of time with are dead.

She wants time back. She wants it to wait for her to catch up. She wants to find time.

We talk about my father. We talk about the day my husband and I found in Paris. We talk about the trap of believing that we’ve screwed up so badly that we can’t or don’t deserve to live fully in the day that is right here in front of us. There is the maddening idea that by “saving” time, we can squirrel it away for later.

Then we talk about those brief flashes of insight that come to us when some event that happens in the space of time it takes to hit the brakes and avoid an accident, or find out that we’ve tucked an extra day in Paris, or when some arbitrary set of circumstances — marrying the right woman, playing tennis in one of the few gyms with an AED attached to the wall — forces our eyes open. We discover that time is both precious and unremarkable. It is now. We understand, if only for a little while, that it was there all along, waiting for us to find it.

Seduction by Artichoke

Source: By MatthiasKabel (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)

Source: By MatthiasKabel (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)

There are the hearts you draw on Valentine cards, the chocolate ones, and the very useful muscle that is sending oxygen to your cells as you read this.

Then there is the tender, sweet meat protected by the thorny leaves of the artichoke. The heart of the choke, or the “toots” as my husband’s family calls it, is the promise that lies at the center of the spiky green globes.

You don’t just pluck this fruit and eat it, you have to work your way in. You have to find a way to render the leaves pliable so they release their essence. You have to peel each one and suck it dry, prove your worthiness.

Eating an artichoke is not a casual decision. It is a commitment. You engage with fingers, tongue and taste buds. It is not for the naive or inexperienced. When my mother introduced her children to this exotic food, she refused to let us have more than a few leaves of steamed chokes until we proved we could scrape every scrap of flesh from them. Then we progressed to the heart which she would scrape clean and carve into five small morsels, one for each of us. The tips of our fingers were slippery with melted butter and I can still remember the sweetness of my first taste.

My husband, though, revealed the true nature of the artichoke to me. He is polite but dismissive about the steamed choke. His way to the heart requires patience, a sharp knife, and tough fingertips which turn black as he prepares the artichokes for one of two final steps, each involving olive oil, garlic, lemon, herbs, a dash of marsala. Then, depending on their size, or his mood, they simmer in all of that until the juice has found its way into each crevice and has turned what is left of the leaves to petals of flavor. Or, he sautees them until they are crispy blossoms that give way to lemon, garlic and then the sudden fleeting sweetness of the “toots” before heading down the hatch to make room for another.

Artichokes helped us to fall even more deeply in love during one Christmas week in Rome. A long walk brought us into the Trastevere neighborhood and to Al Fontanone, then a small place with solid tables, carafes of good wine, and a waiter who informed us that artichokes, “carciofi,” were in season. We could have ours “alla Romana”, “alla Giudia” or both. Both. We peeled the slippery leaves from the chokes prepared “alla Romana” and shared them. We crunched down on the leaves of the ones prepapred “all Giudia” and smiled into each other’s eyes. We went back for more. Twice.

Inspired by this and by the lessons learned in his grandmother’s kitchen, my love has  been cooking them ever since. Sometimes he manages to combine the smoothness of the “Roman style” with the crispyness of the “Jewish style” into one sensous eating experience which makes me realize how lucky I am that I found a man who knows the way to my heart and is willing to do whatever it takes to get there.

For a look at what it takes, watch this video of my love at work. You can listen to Andrea Bocelli sing Romanza while you watch.

Prepping The Chokes

Or, for another perspective, read Neruda’s “Ode to An Artichoke” via Edible Gardens Point Loma. 

Finally, here’s a look at just one version of the finished product. To the cook: un milione di baci! To all: Happy Valentine’s Day!

Hearts laid bare, ready to eat

Hearts laid bare, ready to eat