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.

Keep your distance – don’t assume familiarity

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I, decent with the seasons, move
Different or with a different love,
Nor question overmuch the nod,
The stone smile of this country god
That never was more reticent,
Always afraid to say more than it meant.

-WH Auden from “The Letter

For most of the last several years, vivid memories of an endless (well, it was endless for as long as it lasted anyway) correspondence, marked by a repeated violation of character and word limits, keep exceeding my capacity for endurance. A long correspondence, a brief, intense meeting and a cut-and-run final act – followed by years of agonizing, wondering and questioning ever since.

I could not handle the intensity of it – or the directness. It had been pointed out to me early on all the little “added things” I throw in at the end of various statements. Like when I said I would be inclined to meet “if we ever wanted to” — this is classic me. I have trouble making a definitive statement without any qualifiers: “I would like to meet you.” And leave it at that. I always add some caveat to the ends, non-committal, that leaves an open ending or an out for the other person because I don’t like the idea of imposing my will or wishes (even if they are individuals strong enough to just say they are not interested). There is something unsavory to me about assuming too much familiarity with anyone, ever, which extends sometimes to not expressing my own feelings and wishes because I don’t want to put any undue pressure on someone else. Unfortunately I can take this to extremes. It is so second nature for me now that I don’t even realize I am doing it. I always feel like I am being more polite this way, but a few people have pointed out that this just comes across as though I am just not interested. (It does not help that I apparently give people this harsh, serious, aloof impression in general.)

All my little addenda ending sentences, offering ways out or at least options, made it seem that I was not invested in the outcome, that I did not care what happened either way and that I had no real feelings. To me, it’s clear that this is ultimately a defense mechanism, as anyone with a history of shyness can certainly understand.

It is surprising, in any case, to have traveled through this correspondence. It could have been such a disaster – pen pals and online communications and trying to “meet” people in this fashion can be such a disaster. What is surprising to me in particular is that there are so many people out there trying to do this online thing but who are not at all good or expressive writers. I prefer people who can convey something real and substantial in writing and don’t think I would get along very well with people who are not at least trying to write coherently. I would in fact overlook people because of their bad writing or lack of effort in the same shallow way someone would discount another simply for how they look. This is probably informed by my whole life as a writer, my history as a pen pal and basing whole friendships solely on the written word. And yet even my obsession with precision in communication, I created a complete disaster in this story.

The way I handled the aftermath of the correspondence and meeting is nothing short of shameful. I ran (so far away). All this time I have contemplated whether I should do something about it – reach out, apologize, clear the air – but I have also grappled with whether I would be doing this just to assuage my own guilt and conscience. I never wanted to do it to make myself feel better – I was tempted to do it to have a clean slate – but if regret and apologetic explanation would only open a door best left closed, what would be the point of that? I have tried to learn in recent years to let go and let closed doors stay that way – one of life’s hardest lessons for ever-curious me. That said, not a day has gone by that this correspondence and the upheaval of its influence did not weigh on me.

Feeling stabby – Vanilla cupcakes, cherry blood filling and knives

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feeling stabby

Vanilla cupcakes with cherry “blood” filling decorated with small candy knives

A number of years ago, I worked with a guy who was accused of stabbing another person to death in a parking garage. He spent some time in jail but was eventually released – I suppose there was a lack of evidence. I don’t know all the details of the story or the case. But I can’t look at these small candy knives and not think of him, regardless of his guilt or innocence.

Vanilla cupcake recipe

2 cups flour

1 tablespoon baking powder

1/2 cup softened butter

1 1/4 cups sugar

2 eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla

3/4 cups milk

Preheat oven to 375F/180-185C. Line a cupcake pan with liners.

Whisk dry ingredients together in one bowl. In a separate bowl, cream the butter and sugar together until smooth and fluffy. Add eggs, vanilla and 1/4 cup of the milk. Beat for a few minutes until the mixture is light. Alternately beat in dry ingredient mix and the remaining half cup of milk. Half-fill each cupcake liner.

Bake for 15-20 minutes (check for doneness by inserting a toothpick into the center of cupcakes; a clean toothpick means the cupcake is ready). Cool.

When cooled, hollow out the center of the cupcakes, discard the middle parts but retain the very top to recover the filled cupcake. Fill each cupcake with cherry jam or cherry pie filling and top with the reserved cupcake lid.

At this point you could also frost the cupcake but the “bloody knife effect” is best achieved by simply sprinkling more jam/filling messily on top of the cupcake and plunging the candy knife into the cupcake or flat on top of the cupcake.

feeling stabby vanilla cupcakes

Vanilla cupcakes with cherry filling