Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Proustian Moment

I went to a weird, little liberal arts college where there was almost no structure. In some ways, it was goofy and ridiculous as hell. In other ways, it was pretty damned great. I think it was mostly pretty great. Most of the best people I know are people I met there. Many of the best times, were had there.

There was no set course list at Goddard. No such thing as a course catalogue. Instead, every semester, people would make suggestions about what group studies (never "classes" - they were called "group studies") should be available. Students would make suggestions. Faculty would make suggestions. Even staff would make suggestions. If the woman who ran the mail room had a suggestion, well, hell...she would be heard and her idea might just make the cut. This could be frustrating. It meant that the first week or two of each semester was spent figuring out what would be offered, who would lead groups, what readings lists and curricula would look like. There would be no English Lit 101 at Goddard. Why would there be, when the sky was the limit? Why would anyone opt for that, when they could choose, as I did my first semester, a group study called Madame Bovary and The Cat?  Madame Bovary and The Cat was the brainchild of Kathryn Davis : a group study in which participants read Flaubert's novel, spent months dissecting one book, and then, at the end of the semester, dissected an actual cat. It sounds crazy, but it was kind of glorious; dissecting a book and a character with our minds, and then moving to a lab setting, and using our hands to slice open a dead cat (who, incidentally, had been pregnant when she died...we opened her up to find a gorgeous litter of fully-formed, dead kittens inside - that was somehow fitting.) I remember the day we dissected the cat. None of us had any training in this area. It wasn't a science class. We were using scalpels and rubber gloves, but we were using them as literary tools. Kathryn looked at us (all four of us) and asked, "How should we cut, and why? Any ideas?" It was quite something. Instead of research papers, participants in the group were free to do whatever type of final project we chose. Why write an academic paper, when you could create a collection of personal effects for Emma Bovary? A birth certificate, passport, driver's license - all playing on Flaubert's vague and ever-changing descriptions of his protagonist. That was my project - the Emma Bovary dossier. Someone else created an installation that struck me as a tribute to repulsiveness. It consisted of an old, plastic soda bottle hanging from the ceiling, a slow but steady stream of pink, gooey liquid falling from it, leaving a disgusting puddle on the floor. I'm not sure what it meant, if it did, indeed, mean anything at all. But it wasn't boring. A paper on Madame Bovary would have been boring. Does the world really need another college term paper on Flaubert?

But I digress. I don't really want to write about my college experience, except by way of writing about an experience I had a few days ago. One of the last group studies I took at Goddard, and one of the more traditional, was called The Art of Memory. Mark Doty, who suggested the group and facilitated it, was interested in memory as a creative trigger for writers. It was Proust's moment with a cup of tea and a cookie - the moment that resulted in Remembrance of Things Past - that inspired the group study. The first volume was sort our class guide - we read it slowly, during the course of the semester, while also doing a number of writing exercises that involved using memory as a creative trigger. It seemed like a great concept but, to be honest, I found Proust incredibly boring and not at all moving or inspirational. At the last group meeting, Doty treated us all to tea and madeleines, with the idea that the combination would trigger memories for us the way it had for Proust. It didn't, of course. Because that particular combination was Marcel Proust's trigger, not mine. Proust's pivotal moment was, for me, just a cookie dipped in weak tea. Ho hum.

But everyone has his or her own tea and madeleines.

We've started getting cold weather in San Francisco. I happen to be broke, and buying a box of cheap, instant cocoa for $1.99 is cheaper than shelling out $2.00 for a cup of hot cocoa at a local coffee shop. A few days ago, when it was especially cold in the middle of the afternoon, I opened a packet of Nestle's cocoa, emptied it into a mug, and filled the mug with hot water from the electric kettle we have at work. I gave the hot cocoa a stir with a plastic spoon, threw the spoon away, and took a sip as I walked down the hallway towards my office. That subtle saltiness that's always there in cheap cocoa hit my tongue and, for a moment I left my body and found myself at another moment in my life.

I am very young and I know, somehow, that I am the youngest of my mother's children: there is no baby sister, yet. This means I am no older than 5. This means it must be no later than 1972. My mother and I have spent the day together, alone. A rare thing, and I can't imagine where my older sister is, but I don't really care. A day alone with my mother is like magic. I love being with her. She is fun and lovable. We are in the Flatiron district of Manhattan, near her job. She's taken me to work on this day, and then to a wholesale dealer of toys and novelties, where I was allowed to pick out a few items from the 50 cent bin. The afternoon ends with the two of us at a diner. Eating out is a rare treat in 1972, not a common occurrence, the way it is in 2011. I want to sit at the counter and spin around on the round stool. Yes, that's fine. We sit at the counter and eat sandwiches. Grilled cheese? Maybe tuna salad. Each sandwich comes with a dill pickle on the side and my mother, who never liked pickles, gives me hers. We also have tiny, metal bowls with crunchy cole slaw. So yummy. When the waitress asks my mother if she'd like coffee, she scrunches up her nose. She never drinks what we call "American coffee," meaning Maxwell House made in a drip coffee maker and kept warm for hours. In our family, we drink rich, finely ground, Puerto Rican coffee filtered through a colador - a muslin coffee sock.

Even I drink this strong coffee, with boiled milk and sugar. Even I know to scrunch up my nose at American coffee. Instead, my mother orders hot cocoa. The waitress asks if we'd like marshmallows or whipped cream. I look up at my mother, who smiles with her big, brown eyes and says, with a hint of fun in her voice, "Both!" I have had hot cocoa, before, but never marshmallows, and never whipped cream. When our mugs arrive, they're piled high with swirls of cream. My mother tells me to go ahead and taste the cream, but to be careful - the cocoa is very hot. She slides a spoon under the whipped cream and pulls out a melted mini marshmallow, blows on it to cool it off, and then spoon-feeds it to me as if I were, once again, her baby. A little of the cocoa is on the spoon and I taste a subtle saltiness. The same saltiness I will taste in 2011. The same subtle saltiness that will send me reeling back for just a moment, make me so happy to be in that time and place I'd almost forgotten about. The same subtle saltiness that, once the Proustian moment is over, will leave my heart aching and leave me without breath as I say to myself, out loud, "Oh...Ma...."

Oh. Ma.

© 2012 Lana M. Nieves
Limited Licensing: I, the copyright holder of this work, hereby publish it under the Creative Commons Attribution license, granting distribution of my copyrighted work without making changes, with mandatory attribution to Lana M. Nieves and for non-commercial purposes only. - Lana M. Nieves 


Ă„iti said...

Oh...Snapper... Really lovely piece. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Hey Snapper,

The power and glory of your postings lure me viscerally into believing that I knew/know you and Ma. Keep sharing your memories, reflections, and insights.

- mzpiggie