It’s been a very delicious year in my house. I worked with Renee Erickson on A Boat, a Whale, and a Walrus: Menus and Stories, due out in September, which has been, hands down, the most rewarding, most thrilling work experience I’ve had in my career. (I’ll take spot prawning and crabbing as a day’s work over fact-checking any day. Same for traveling to Normandy to learn about oysters. Ditto for working with and writing about a chef who is as devoted to beauty, writ large, as she is about where she sources her ingredients.) In cookbook terms, we worked hard and fast–at least, it seemed fast to me, until I started Passionate Nutrition, which was the writer’s equivalent of running a marathon with no training. The overall effect feels like swimming to the ocean’s surface after being released by a submarine far, far below.
Now, though. I’m back at the surface, after a year under water. Boat comes out in September, and Passionate Nutrition comes out in December. I’m intensely proud of and excited for both books, and feel so lucky to have been chosen as the writer for each. And now, theoretically, I have time to pick my head up and look around for what’s next. (I’ve had time to read, which in and of itself is cause for celebration.) Only, reading The Map of Enough made me wonder what I’m really trying to see.
The Map of Enough, by Molly May, a woman three or four silky threads over on the web of life that seems to connect us all, is a lovely memoir about the significance of place and self-exploration. The book sees life through the eyes of a woman who spent her childhood and young adulthood identifying as a happy nomad—a person whose soul craved travel and adventure—who decides to build a yurt by hand with her now husband. After growing up in a constantly mobile family, she’d always needed to move. In fact, for the first part of the book, I didn’t think I’d be able to identify with her at all. I was born all settled down. I can’t take a two-hour car trip without unpacking myself properly into the front half of the car. To me, the concept of building a house you could just pick up and move anywhere seemed antithetical to the concept of having one in the first place. If you build a home, it means you want to stay right where it is, right? Building a yurt is pretty close to the bottom of my lifelong to-do list, right down there with visiting the Arctic (where my husband is now) and riding a bicycle across the country (which is where you’ll find my sister soon). I’m the girl who always had all her school supplies lined up and labeled a week before school started. If I’m going somewhere, I want to know when, why, where, and for how long. I make reservations. People who build yurts by hand aren’t reservations people.
Reading is funny, though. The more I read about Molly’s need (or lack thereof) to pick that yurt up and move it someplace new, the more I associated her Montana life with my own work habits. Every time she flashed back to childhood memories, living in Spain or in Mexico, I saw myself–but my in my working life, instead of my personal life. I saw myself jumping from project to project the way she’d jumped from country to country, sometimes, like Molly, self-defining more by the jumping (Higher! Faster! Over a new stream!) than by the projects themselves. It threw me into a tizzy over the definition of one word: enough.
I don’t want to go anywhere, like Molly did. (We also remodeled our basement in the last year, so we’re not moving anywhere.) But I have been wondering, the way she did, how to know when I’ve had enough of something. And what’s the difference between getting enough, in the sense of being full, like when you eat, and having enough, as in being sick of something? It’s a fine line.
For me, clearly, enough relates to cooking and writing and writing about cooking. Of course it does. We all want to do well in our work, and as a freelancer, there’s no annual review. There’s the wave of self-satisfaction and pride that washes over when the mailman brings a big blue cookbook to your doorstep, but there’s no promotion. There’s no real benchmark. There’s no paperwork that says, Well, Jess, that’s enough for this year, well done. I guess I’d like an owl to fly through the window with a letter that reads: There, now you’ve got three more until Success. Walk down Greenwood Avenue. Take your third left, then the first right. Your next idea will be hiding in a small box in front of the red house. Books bring me pleasure, but these two offer no more of a path forward–and no more real sign of enough–than the first did. Is it enough to write someone else’s story, rather than my own? Is it enough to work during the school year, but not much over the summer this year? Is it enough that I’m writing recipes for this blog every week or so, but that they never seem to make it onto the screen? Is it enough to make money writing for a corporate magazine no one reads?
Enough seeps across the cracks to the rest of life, too. I’ve declared this The Summer of Graham, because before our kiddo starts kindergarten, we’re doing an intense amount of various therapies with him. There were three weeks in leg casts designed to increase his ankle flexibility, then a week in California for an alternative therapy, and now, where I sit writing and pretending not to watch at all, he’s working with his favorite physical therapist, learning how to use the crutches he’ll have inside his kindergarten classroom. Is it enough? Right now it’s three hours of therapy every weekday. Is it too much? Where’s the line? The kid clearly has the capacity to learn, physically, and in that sense the therapy is “working.” He can make sideways steps now while hanging onto something, which means he’ll be more successful going to the bathroom by himself. (Huzzah!) But he also needs to be a kid. It’s summer. He needs to run through the sprinkler and eat sand and fall down the stairs. (Check. Check. Check.) He needs to play Candy Land until he drives his parents crazy. (Check.) But are we summering enough?
You have issues with enough, too, I’m sure. They’re different issues. But they’re there.
There’s a habit Molly has, explained in the book, of getting in the car and just driving when she’s feeling the need to move. Ultimately, to me, the habit was helpful; it signified that while we’re always looking to define enough, the definition changes when we step away. Last spring, I thought for a bit that I’d had enough of food writing. (Well, that, or I thought I’d never find a project as great as A Boat, a Whale, and a Walrus again, and I got depressed.) In the cracks, I wrote a story about skiing, and a story about noise, and a story about cycling, and now, food seems pretty lovable again. I got in the car and drove away–metaphorically, anyway. I came back, and now food seems like enough.
Now, I think, I need to explore–not just how to define enough, and how have enough, but how to not have enough, too. The other day, sitting on the couch while a random batch of fig jam bubbled away on the stove and Graham played happily, I got a little bored. I had a moment of (dare I say it?) summer. It felt so, so good. And in that small moment–hanging out with my kid, with the windows open, and only vague plans on the horizon but all Graham’s school years in front of me to work on whatever comes next–I felt like I’d found the recipe for enough.
Now, if I could just get that small moment of enough to last longer.