Eating alone

I remember the first time I took myself out to lunch. Not the fast-food variety, either; that was old hat, routine. A real, honest-to-goodness sit-down meal in a restaurant where a hostess greeted me and I had to look up, shyly, and say, “Just one.”

I didn’t have a book or magazine with me (a rookie mistake) — just a bowl of pasta and my cell phone, which I used to scribble notes to friends. I was a freshman in college and preparing for a night shift at work. I needed a heavy meal to make it through the evening, I decided, and stepping into this new sense of independence was like donning a foreign skin — uncomfortable and itchy and strange. I was 18 and had never dined alone. I hurried through the meal, paid my bill and left. Though proud of myself, it was vaguely unsettling.

Now I don’t mind eating alone. My lunch break is a refuge from an otherwise busy day at the newspaper where I sit writing and answering emails, lost in a paper world and far from my own thoughts. I never leave home without a book — ever — and am often fondly teased for always having a paperback nearby. Though it’s costly and time-consuming, I go out to lunch every day. The usual haunts near my office become a place in which I’m lost to the world, picking at a salad or biting into a crisp sandwich.

I don’t mind eating with others, of course, and rarely turn down a lunch date. On the Fridays my boyfriend isn’t working, Spencer meets me in town to catch up and make eyes across a table. My sister and dad pop out to meet me once or twice a week. And my mother often calls to meet on Fridays, after she’s run errands and is looking for a buddy.

But the other days — most days? I watch the clock and anticipate where to run, never minding the fact that I walk in alone, order alone, eat alone. Characters in novels keep me company, and I eagerly anticipate returning to a world that is not my own. I don’t feel lonely . . . most of the time.

I live a quiet life, maybe a solitary life. And I often think about that college freshman, that girl afraid of looking out-of-place, and I think about how I’ve changed and grown and learned — and of the poets and stories and books that have defined me. And I think of Li-Young Lee — my favorite poet — and this poem. Because I love it, and because it is true.


Eating Alone
By Li-Young Lee

I’ve pulled the last of the year’s young onions.
The garden is bare now. The ground is cold,
brown and old. What is left of the day flames
in the maples at the corner of my
eye. I turn, a cardinal vanishes.
By the cellar door, I wash the onions,
then drink from the icy metal spigot.

Once, years back, I walked beside my father
among the windfall pears. I can’t recall
our words. We may have strolled in silence. But
I still see him bend that way-left hand braced
on knee, creaky-to lift and hold to my
eye a rotten pear. In it, a hornet
spun crazily, glazed in slow, glistening juice.

It was my father I saw this morning
waving to me from the trees. I almost
called to him, until I came close enough
to see the shovel, leaning where I had
left it, in the flickering, deep green shade.

White rice steaming, almost done. Sweet green peas
fried in onions. Shrimp braised in sesame
oil and garlic. And my own loneliness.
What more could I, a young man, want.

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the atlantic ocean makes a comeback

pen_journalLike cleaning out an attic, basement or bedroom, cleaning out the files on my flash drive is a daunting task! It’s impossible to tell what I’ll find on there: old novels, started then discarded; random photos I’ve culled into “collections” over the years; bits of story ideas, some developed; favorite quotes; graphics I’ve made for others, and for myself.

The most surprising thing I’ve found lately is a collection of poetry created in my senior year of college. During my final semester in the creative writing program, we were asked to compile our favorite works by poets both popular and unknown. I had a crazy time trying to narrow it down to less than twenty, but I did succeed — and I put them all in one Word document, making sure I had the fonts and spacing exactly similar for each one! That’s my editor OCD kicking in again.

Since printing out those poems and putting them in a folder two and a half years ago, I’d completely forgotten about my project — which I called “atlantic ocean.” I wasn’t into using capital letters then — including in my own name! — and I’d forgotten how different and serious I was! I guess that’s a byproduct of sitting around, writing poetry all day. Poets aren’t typically heel-clicking, cackling and ecstatic people. In fact, a lot of sallow-faced, beret-wearing scribblers come to mind! (For the record, I look terrible in hats — no beret for me.)

So who made the cut and was featured in Megan’s “atlantic ocean: an anthology”? Folks like Robert Frost , Billy Collins and Charles Simic, of course, but also outstanding writers like Li-Young Lee , Kim Addonizio and Galway Kinnell.

Poetry was once such an enormous part of my life, I would actually find myself “translating” life into poetry as I went about my daily nonsense! As I strolled across campus, sat down to have lunch or tapped a pen restlessly against a desk, I would try to pick out pieces of everyday living that made me question what I was or where I was going. Or just to look at something simple — something mundane — and examine it with fresh, open eyes. Since finishing my time in the English department and departing for the “real world,” my life-to-poetry translator device has been switched off like a basement light. I wonder how much of that was a conscious decision on my part and how much was merely life becoming, for a time, less interesting and less beautiful.

I wrote my first poem in two years this weekend and, though it’s certainly nothing to matte and frame, I’m proud of it. I’m proud that, for the first time in a long time, I parted my lips with something to say. Something that was real — something just for me. And finding this anthology buried in my files has only made the moment that much sweeter!

As fall is settling down into the crevices of every sidewalk, back yard and shopping mall, my life, too, is beginning again.

And I can’t talk about poetry without sharing poetry, so here are a few of my favorites from “atlantic ocean”:



Eating Together
by Li-Young Lee

In the steamer is the trout
seasoned with slivers of ginger,
two sprigs of green onion, and sesame oil.
We shall eat it with rice for lunch,
brothers, sister, my mother who will
taste the sweetest meat of the head,
holding it between her fingers
deftly, the way my father did
weeks ago. Then he lay down
to sleep like snow-covered road
winding through pines older than him,
without any travelers, and lonely for no one.



Love Poem
by Linda Pastan

I want to write you
a love poem as headlong
as our creek
after thaw
when we stand
on its dangerous
banks and watch it carry
with it every twig
every dry leaf and branch
in its path
every scruple
when we see it
so swollen
with runoff
that even as we watch
we must grab
each other
and step back
we must grab each
other or
get our shoes
soaked we must
grab each other