Saturday, July 26, 2014

OTSUKARESAMA DESHITA

One of the best gifts I ever received wasn't really a gift; it was more of a leftover, a sake set left behind by a friend who moved away. It's really quite lovely — four cups, each ochoko painted a different color inside. For the longest time I thought about throwing it away, or giving it to someone who might use it. But at heart I'm a sentimental fool, so I keep it on display on the off chance I might one day lift a toast to something sublime.

We receive gifts throughout our lives, and like the sake set, the best ones hold meaning far beyond face value. I came across a box of things and in it was a manila envelope, and inside that was a dozen sheets of writing tablet, each containing a recipe in my mother's handwriting. Suddenly I was 6 and in the kitchen, watching her make meals for the week and freeze them so her husband and three sons would have home-cooked dinners while she worked nights at a factory that made hoses for faucets.

At the word factory where I work, a reporter came in from assignment this week and said with a smile, "I think I made chicken salad." He had heard me talk about coming up with the story even when sources and information were thin: making chicken salad out of chicken shit.

Malibu was talking to someone about how she made stories relevant, and she used the phrase, "Why are we at this party?" It's what I ask reporters to think about when they're trying to pitch a winning story — tell me why we're at this particular shindig, and why we want to linger.

Incredibly personal gifts, these things, because those phrases came from my mentors. They're the same people who taught me that the city in Phelps County is pronounced RAH-la, not ROLL-uh; that streets in Springfield run east-west and avenues run north-south; that there are places in the Ozarks, especially south of U.S. 60, where you're just one wrong turn on a dirt road from finding yourself in a world of shit.

Like my mother and her recipes, my mentors gave me those gifts without realizing how they would resonate across the decades. They were just whipping me into shape so I could become one of them. And now I have.

Stringing together the words and sentences, finding the rhythm to evoke tone and emotion — that stuff didn't come from any friend or mentor, but I still consider it a gift. Maybe the biggest one of all, really, because it's given me a career and an identity. I write for a living. I write to live. It's what I do.

Bastard that I am, I have at times squandered this gift. I have wasted words on frivolous things. It's the equivalent of filling that sake tokkuri with cheap, oily gin — a careless, classless thing to do. Only brutes throw away the gifts they're given.

The consequence is a ricochet of fear inside my head. I wake up every morning and wonder if this is the day the words stop flowing. I call up a blank page and my fingers start to twitch. There is still some water left in the well — I can hear it sloshing down there — but I know the supply will eventually run out. Before it does I must finish what needs to be written, so I can fill the sake cups and gently toast those who gave me such wonderful gifts: otsukaresama deshita.

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