The Apple Crisp of Guilt and Grief: No Do-Overs

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I was going to make some apple crisp – being in a foreign kitchen (still), I don’t have a lot of tools or ingredients at my disposal. But apple crisp is about the easiest thing a person can make. A non-baker with a few apples, a knife, some butter and oatmeal and a bit of cinnamon and sugar has just about all he or she needs to get a crisp on. (Not unlike “we’re just two adults getting a stew on!”)

But then, someone ate the apples before I could get to the paring and spicing and throwing it all into one pan for the simple delight of apple crisp*. His loss.

Unrelated, as tangents are, referring to someone eating the apples reminds me, unfortunately, of poet William Carlos Williams and one of his most famous works, “This Is Just to Say” – on the surface, it’s about his having eaten the plums someone else was saving for him/herself. Seems more like a casual apology for infidelity and irresistible forbidden fruit. It betrays not one hint of guilt – even reveling in its duplicitous possibilities. But who knows? These things are subjective.

I have already cited William Carlos Williams and his chickens and wheelbarrows once – given our high school dislike for the guy and his work, I never would have imagined citing him at all. Yet here I am. Then I have a newfound appreciation for things that my 16-year-old mind did not fully absorb, feel or trust.

One poet feels no guilt about whatever he does, while another person feels guilt for eating an M&M or an extra helping of macaroni and cheese. One man cheats on his wife and feels nothing but feels guilty for quitting his job without telling the same wife he is otherwise deceiving. Guilt is strange, though – bubbling up like the full spectrum of emotions that we sometimes don’t even imagine we are capable of feeling. For example, I think a lot about how useless jealousy is, and while I don’t believe in it and rarely feel it – and criticize the frenzy of its violence in others – I can sometimes feel what a cruel wind-up toy jealousy is. It pokes at me sometimes but not for the same reasons it pokes others, perhaps.

A close friend who has been in my life for many years wrote to me to wish me a happy new year and shared the news that her husband passed away just before Christmas. One of her greatest takeaways from the experience of this loss was that there are no do-overs. Like a lot of people I have known, her marriage was not necessarily happy, so she had longed for freedom. But once her husband was gone – unexpectedly – she experienced a tremendous amount of guilt intertwined in her grief about not being able to do over all the negative thoughts and words she had expressed over the years. We don’t know, as I have said again and again in the last year, when we will have our last conversation with someone.

I tried to advise her not to be too hard on herself. When people die, we often reflect and are seized by guilt that is enveloped by the haze of grief that clouds the daily reality of our dealings. Daily life engenders and embodies all the resentment, negativity, selfishness, pain, hidden hurts, agendas that make it almost impossible not to succumb to some part of the… grind of daily life. All of those feelings remain intact and valid even when the other person passes on. Forgetting the validity of that will not be a true reflection of the lesson learned. There is, as I told her, another side to the “there are no do-overs” coin. A life’s bitter negativity can be reflected upon, but that same life’s guilt cannot guide it. The immediacy of not having do-overs is that it allows for honesty. These sudden losses can eventually lead to an opportunity for emotional recalibration and a place of balance.

In the aftermath, though, it is not surprise that guilt is inextricably wound up with the grief. As my friend sagely wrote, which squeezed my heart and choked me up, “I have waited for this moment for years, not understanding that with freedom comes the knowledge that it is built upon someone’s demise.”

*And for anyone keeping track or feeling a hankering for apple crisp, here’s the basic recipe I would have used:

Here’s what I would have done:

Apple crisp recipe

Apple filling:
1 kilogram of Granny Smith apples (about 6), peeled, cored, and sliced how you prefer
3 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Streusel/Crust:
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 cup uncooked oats
1/3 cup flour
4 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces; use a small bit to grease the baking dish.
Preheat the oven to 350°F/175°C. Lightly coat an 8-by-8-inch baking dish with butter.
Mix the apples, sugar, cinnamon in a large bowl and toss to coat. Place the apple mixture in the dish and set aside.
Use the same bowl and mix together the brown sugar, oats, flour until evenly combined. Blend in the butter with your fingertips until small clumps form (two minutes). Sprinkle the topping evenly over the apples and bake until the streusel is crispy and the apples are tender, about one hour. Let cool on a rack at least 30 minutes before serving.

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