Annie Dillard wrote, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” On the first of each month, Catching Days hosts a guest writer in the series, “How We Spend Our Days.” Today, please welcome writer Marge Piercy:
The Jewish day goes from sundown to sundown, and since I’m writing about the day before Pesach, I will begin with the evening before. After we have supper together—I cook and Ira does the dishes—I put on the water to boil a dozen eggs. Tomorrow I will use them in a dish. But since I have to get everything cooked and packed up to go to the friends’ house where the Seder will take place, I need to do some chores tonight.
From the big freezer, I take out a whole chicken and a four and a half pound brisket. I drop the chicken on my foot (it is very slippery) and curse loudly and hop around. When the pain subsides, I put both the brisket and the chicken in the laundry room to thaw. I put a bag of dried apricots into kosher wine to soak.
It being Thursday night, I watch Big Bang Theory and then plunge the eggs into cold water so I can peel them. After peeling, I stick them in a stainless steel bowl in the refrigerator and resume reading American English. I read a lot of poetry, some fiction, and a fair amount of nonfiction. The novel I finished last night was The Tiger’s Wife, set in the fragmented former Yugoslavia, in Serbia, after the war. The poetry I am currently reading is Ruth Daigon’s Between One Future and the Next. The novel I will read next is Stone Arabia; I’ll start that tonight if I finish American English.
At ten all six cats are staring at me. I go downstairs, unload the dishwasher, and prepare to feed six cats from one jar of baby food. The largest amounts go to Malkah, who is seventeen, an orange tabby I tamed from a feral rescue, and Sugar Ray, a sweet laid back Burmese who thinks he is married to me. They have to get their hyperthyroid medicine mixed into the baby food. I never had cats get hyperthyroidism before; now two have it. I want to know why but my vet says no one knows. Puck the Abyssinian, Mingus, Sugar Ray’s cousin and best friend, Efi, a somewhat daft Siamese, also a rescue, and Xena, who is ten months old and by far the largest cat—they all get a little bit of baby food. We got Xena from the MSPCA in September when she fit into my cupped hands. She is sweet-tempered, gets along with everybody but has an ambition—to be the biggest domestic cat ever seen.
I go to bed, read something dull for a while—catalogs or a cookbook—and sleep. In the morning, Ira makes two huge mugs of coffee. While the water is getting to the boil for French press, he feeds a moil of semi-starving cats. We have coffee in bed while we plan our day. Then he goes to his office. I write some last-minute fixes I thought of for the novel tentatively called End Game, which should go off to my agent this coming week.
At noon we gather in the kitchen. I made charoset—in my case, a blend of almonds, apples, figs, dates, and kosher wine. Charoset is one of the ritual items at the Seder. Then I start chopping for gedempte flaisch mit abricotten, made of brisket, carrots, parsnips, onions, and the apricots I soaked plus any liquid left over. I add ginger, ground coriander, ground cardamom, salt, some more kosher wine, and beef broth. The meat is browned, then the veggies. Then everything else is added and the heavy Le Creuset pot goes into the oven at 300 degrees. It will bake for four and a half hours. My grandmother Hannah served this every Pesach.
Then I go back to my computer to fiddle with the supposedly finished novel for an hour. I play with whatever cats want to play. I roast one of the peeled eggs over a flame on the gas stove until it is blackened on all sides, for the Seder plate. I wash the parsley, the snippet that goes on the plate—the bunch that will be passed around and dipped in salt water. Ira starts his famous matzo ball soup. Some people’s matzo balls, you could bowl with. His are light as dandelion fluff.
I look for the lamb shank in the refrigerator freezer, freaking out when I can’t find it. Ira finds it. Then I look for the horseradish, which I do find, and then the three blood oranges. One will go in the center of the Seder plate—all will be eaten by the participants, section by section. I am putting items for the Seder plate not on the plate itself, which we brought down from a high shelf and washed, but rather in little plastic sandwich bags. The cats are sniffing the redolent air by now. I feed them cat food. Tough shit, kids. No begging tonight.
We no longer hold the Seder in our house, as our dining room is too small. I have been conducting a Seder and working on my Haggadah (the script for the Seder) for over thirty years. By now some of the participants are grandparents and we are into the third generation. These years the Seder is held at the home of the fire chief of Wellfleet and his wife, a financial consultant. They can put four tables together so that everybody fits.
I start on the salad. The gedempteh flaisch is Ashkenazi cooking, Eastern European. The charoset I make is Misraki from the cooking of Jews from the Middle East. The egg course I am about to make is Sephardic, the Jews who lived in Spain and Portugal for fifteen hundred years before being forcibly expelled, converted or burned at the stake. This mixture is intentional. I cut up the hard cooked eggs. Then cucumbers. Then fennel bulbs. I mix them all and dress the salad with virgin olive oil, lemon juice, and a little salt.
I count out the right number of Haggadahs. Back in early March I went over last year’s and cut passages, added stuff about the Republican war on women and more about contemporary slavery and hunger, put in a new poem in an appropriate place. My Haggadah is about two-thirds poetry. I sent out music for the songs several weeks ago. We start loading the truck. Some years we have to bring extra chairs; some years, not.
The sun is setting. Since the Jewish calendar is lunar, at some point we will go outside to watch the moon rise. At our house it rose majestically over the marsh. At the fire chief’s, it rises over Dunkin Donuts, but it is still a big beautiful full moon. Everyone has gathered together. There are always some new people among the old friends, and there are introductions. We pass out my Haggadahs with beautiful covers I have cobbled from many sources. The wine and grape juice are on the table. The sun is setting and we begin by lighting the Pesach candles and saying the first blessing. The special evening has begun. This is my favorite holiday.
AND THOSE SAME 3 QUESTIONS…
1. What is the best book you’ve read in the last few months and how did you choose it?
- The best books I’ve read in the last year are A Song of Ice and Fire, four volumes by George R.R. Martin. I started the first book when HBO had Game of Thrones on, and got hooked. Martin creates an entire world but unlike most fantasy worlds, it is not good versus evil but stories about power struggles and the struggle to survive among compelling characters who are a mix of good and evil. There’s much more sex than in most fantasy worlds and it feels real.
2. Would you give us one little piece of writing advice?
- The best advice for anybody who wants to write is to read, not books about writing but books in the genre they are interested in. You don’t learn to be a surgeon by reading The Way of the Surgeon. You don’t reinvent the wheel. Don’t directly imitate but learn what has been done and what is being done in your genre.
3. What is your strangest reading or writing habit?
- I always have a cat sitting on my lap or next to the computer while I am writing. Sometimes they get on the printer and I have to push them off. Writing in a lonely activity and they keep me company.
Some–but not all–of the books by Marge Piercy: