|The Harvester by Adolphe William Bouguereau, 1868|
Four days ago, I went shopping with my parents. We weren't trekking the aisles of Dillard's or salivating in jewelry stores wishing for two-carat diamonds to prove our status to people who didn't even know us. We weren't lollygagging in Orson Gygi's kitchen store, either. Or should I say, Orson Gygi's culinary arts center stocked with pots and pans costing more than our first farm in Idaho. Not that I don't appreciate culinary arts centers. When this pot roast queen saunters through Gygi's grand entrance, I'm elevated from chief-cook-and-bottle-washer to the superior status of Master Chef. It’s a heady feeling, very different from shopping for spatulas at Wal-Mart.
Had I known about Orson Gygi when my kids were little, their nightly query, "What's for dinner, Mom?" might have been answered with "Pasta." Not macaroni. "Fromage." Not cheese. And instead of starting the meal with peeled carrots dipped in Miracle Whip, we'd have dined on crudités and la sauce miracle. My kids would have filled up on the same meal no matter what we called it, that's true; but at least they'd have felt special instead of typical and ordinary. Not that I'm criticizing people who treat their kids like royalty by turning themselves into short order cooks at the child’s command; though maybe I am criticizing parents who indulge their children’s ‘wants’ and ignore their children’s ‘needs’. My kitchen mantra when my kids complained about liver and onions was: “You eat what I Cook ‘cuz I know more about nutrition than you do. I study books you can’t even read, yet.”
Then I allowed them to make a choice: "Do you want liver and onions with salt? Or do you want liver and onions with salt AND pepper?"
About five years ago, an incident at an upscale but 'homey' restaurant typified what we see today when parents try too hard to please their children. It set my teeth on edge though I couldn’t say ‘why’ at the time. It just bugged. Being an authority figure and not a child's 'servant' is a balancing act for most twenty-first century parents. I never denied my authority as a parent, though I toned it down a bit from the authoritarian parenting style we boomer kids grew up with.
A mother and her three-year-old son were waiting in line ahead of me. The restaurant’s food had already been prepared and arranged in big bowls sitting in a display case---family-style-chic a' la California. There was one bowl of this and another bowl of that and once they ran out of a particular dish, there wasn’t anymore for that day. By the time this mother and her child had placed their orders, all the pasta-and-fromage had been served to prior customers.
“But my son wants pasta!” she complained.
“I’m sorry. We’re out of pasta.”
“Can’t you make some more? Just for him? He wants pasta!”
“I’m sorry. We’re out of pasta.”
"BUT HE WANTS PASTA!"
After which, the woman had a conniption fit that her son, the three-year-old-monarch, would not be able to eat what HE WANTED. And yup, he was earnestly watching his mother treat people like serfs because he, the Center of our Universe, was denied macaroni and cheese. I could not have told you why this incident was so ‘wrong’ at the time because the word narcissism was not on the tip of my tongue---but Spoilt Brat was. And so was “Get Real” in reference to his mother. This incident stuck in my head like Case Study on How To Raise a Boy To Be Entitled, Arrogant, and definitely NOT suitable for marriage.
In light of our Narcissism Epidemic evidenced by little monarchs giving marching orders to insecure parents, I browsed Orson Gygi's stock to see if they sold wee crowns for wee ones to wear while dining at the family's royal table. Too bad! No Crowns! The good news is that Orson Gygi stocks those white hats the 'real chefs' wear while preparing food in top-notch restaurants. Sorry...let me rephrase that: "...white hats the 'real chefs' wear while creating masterpieces in top-notch restaurants."
I resisted buying one of those tall, pleated and bleached mushrooms since I'm partial to hairnets myself. That's what the best cooks wore when we ate in a school lunchroom back in the 1950's and 60's. Maybe this says a lot about my lack of ambition but I never aspired to be the Top chef on a reality show. I aspired to be one of those gloriously chubby lunchroom ladies giving extra scoops of cinnamon roll goop if kids said, "Thank You, and Please." And when the cinnamon roll goop was gone, we accepted the fact that it was gone. The next time cinnamon rolls were on the menu, we lined up as soon as lunch bell rang. (One of my sisters strives to fill the idealized lunchroom ladies' shoes, too. Neither of us has achieved recognition for our culinary mastery, other than the occasional burp at the very 'not-so-royal' dinner table.)
Getting back to my original story:
My Dad needed a new wheat grinder because his old one released too much dust in the air; Mom feared her carpet would turn into a grain field. You see, now that my Dad has retired, he has assumed the role of master bread maker. Mom’s more than willing to share the joy of baking after spending half her life in the kitchen. Sorry, let me rephrase that last sentence: "...after spending half her life in the culinary arts center." My Dad, the typical patriarch, doesn't call himself "chief-cook-and-bottle-washer." He has designated himself: Master Bread Maker. Frankly, we don't care what he calls himself as long as he raises the dough.
Evidently not that many shabby-chic-boulangers are interested in grinding wheat because we eventually resorted to following the Yellow Pages to an Emergency Survival Store located on the perimeters of town. On the overloaded shelves of Armageddon Surplus (This wasn’t Orson Gygi, Toto), we beheld intimidating wheat grinders marketed to people with Popeye biceps, grinders to function with generators, grinders so massive you could open a grain-and-feed store or sell extra flour to Pillsbury Mills. There were rows of plastic buckets filled with varieties of wheat: hard winter red, hard spring red, soft winter red, hard winter white, soft spring white, Montana wheat, Idaho wheat, Durum wheat, and buckets and buckets of rye, corn, rice, barley, oats, buckwheat, millet, kamut, quinoa, peas, mung beans, garbanzos, lentils and popcorn.
I dipped my hand in a bucket of high-protein wheat, allowing the hardened kernels to glide through my fingers, envisioning wheat as "the sands of time falling in an hourglass." (Hummm…I think that last line comes right out of a soap opera.) Immersing my hand in a container of grain was an automatic reaction; it’s something I’ve done countless times, though what happened this time was unexpected.
My heart skipped a beat. I felt a quickening of spirit. An electrical surge re-connected me to a 'mothering' role providing the basics of life that sustained, gratified and gave my life direction, meaning, and purpose. My passion for lovin' folks from the oven was revitalized in an unanticipated nanosecond. I felt a rush of gratitude for my time-honored role as a nurturer.
It’s been a long, dry spell of miserable emptiness since my role was reduced to meaningless servitude---a woman whose daily tasks were diminished as ‘replaceable’ and trivial. Sure, we can purchase bread at the grocery store and sure, it doesn’t crumble when you spread it with jam and sure, store-bought bread is cheap considering the labor required to grind and knead and raise and bake it in the oven. Sure, cooks can be replaced when the king decides he needs another chef. But can “I” be replaced?
When my role as a wife and mother was devalued and discarded, I unfortunately D&D’ed my true Self. The one I'd been working on for fifty years. It’s been miserable mourning the pain of rejection, the shattering of my belief that a woman's work was significant, the assumption that I was irreplaceable, that the Self I knew as "me" was more than the sum of my productivity. In the aftermath of divorce, my passion for all things domestic went into hiding. I resisted the thoughts of nurturing anyone or anything, even myself. My love for cooking, my love for gardening, my willingness to embrace a care-taking role so much bigger than "I", seemed to disappear entirely. I felt Lost. Lonely. Lousy. The three "L's" of helll. Somehow and some way, I survived a seven-year drought, an inevitable famine, a plague of locusts, a boiling temper, and even fire-and brimstone when the sky was so dark it appeared the earth had swallowed the sun. Then the frogs came. Seriously. I’ll tell you that story another time.
I lost an essential connection to my true Self, the self that found purpose and meaning in ordinary duties like packing lunches with peanut butter smeared on crusty bread. I feared my reliably steady old Self would never return; yet she did. She returned from a journey through despair and hopelessness with a renewed appreciation of her role as an everyday woman. With a ‘zing’ and a ‘zap’, the old me made her presence known and yes, some people might think it odd that the catalyst for reuniting a woman's self with her capital "S" Self was a wheat grinder. That's okay. I think it's rather ridiculous myself and definitely not exciting or newsworthy. But that's what happened and it inspired me to write to everyone who fears they will never find themselves again. You will. There won't be a fireworks display and no one will notice, or understand your internal change, or even care. Most likely, or so the ancient wise ones tell us: reconnecting self with Self will happen when you're "chopping wood and carrying water".
Did the narcissistic relationship disconnect you from your true Self?
I believe that the more preoccupied we are with finding the lost Self, the more resistant and persistently entrenched the little self remains. So do something you always found meaningful and don't fret about a lack of desire or temporary disdain. This is a normal response to grief and loss. Then think back to the Self you knew, the person you were before your life was interrupted by the invalidating narcissist. Did you love needlework or carpentry? Did you find meaning in spiritual books, poetry, and thoughtful meditation? Was your passion ignited when baking bread or planning menus or doing whatever work you do and doing it the best that you could? If you were able to lose your self in an activity, no matter how trivial or insignificant it may be, then do that activity. Your passion will be restored and it will not be an act of will, nor predictable, nor scheduled on a Covey Day Planner.
The disconnect of self to Self is healed through our willing submission to a grieving process. We yield to the grind of mourning and the spirit raises herself. Once again, we find extraordinary meaning from ordinary, yet life-sustaining responsibilities. We're renewed with gratitude for the commonplace. You will not lose the Self you feared had disappeared forever. You just might make her acquaintance for the first time.
Daily duties, the very basics of life, are often mundane and boring. So when you meet your old Self on the way to the woodpile, don't expect her to throw confetti. Just accept her kind offer to chop the wood and carry the water with you.