By Michaella Thornton
It’s a little after 8 p.m. and my cozy brick bungalow smells of my favorite recipe for chocolate chip cookies. While we may not have much, I can always whip up a little bit of magic on a Friday night as my six-year-old daughter builds new worlds out of little plastic bricks and watches Australian cartoon dogs whose storylines often make me cry, for the family I wanted and for the family she deserves.
It has rained off and on for most of the day. Several hours after baking cookies for my girl and me, Steely Dan’s “Dirty Work” plays in the background as my bedroom ceiling fan whirs above me. While the leaves of the lower Midwest are beginning to turn scarlet, gold, and the magical purple and pink of persimmon trees, the world continues to fall apart in terrible and mundane ways. War in the Middle East. The death of Louise Glück. The arthritis that has settled into my knees and worn away the cartilage so much my orthopedic surgeon “jokes” that at least he can still slide a credit card between the bones. My car’s insistent death rattle also scares me because I cannot bear to discover what else I will need to fix.
I text my best friend earlier in the day to see how she’s faring by herself with her two sons, ages 5 and 7, while her husband is away, and she texts back, almost immediately:
“Doing good, but I have renewed respect for your house not literally being on fire at all times.”
“Gurl, who says it isn’t?” I ask, a single mother going on four years.
The truth of the matter is that my 1928 home, while small and well-loved and in need of constant repair, is pretty peaceful since the divorce. A rambunctious black cat does hide behind the shower curtain and will attack you when you’re using the facilities, but beyond his predatory, pervy shenanigans, this is a loving, light-filled space. A place where my daughter’s art work hangs on her bedroom walls above a Mid-century Modern desk I found on the curb and hefted into my compact car with the help of neighborhood on-lookers. I still need to sand and restain her desk, but the wood is gorgeous, likely white oak, and in fine condition beyond superficial nicks and scratches.
Like most things in my life, my daughter’s desk is a fixer upper. “Good bones” and all, as Maggie Smith reminds us.
This is a column where I try to share some tender gleam of writerly insight through the lens of another practice that gives me joy, baking. Where maybe I jumpstart my craft and yours in the process by reflecting on chocolate chip cookies and the writing life. But how do we write and revise anything when it feels like the world is so broken? How do we focus on art when silence and grief beckon?
I am no expert. I write almost every day, but not volumes and not even my own sentences. I copy down poems I love and admire in a notebook I keep for someone I’d like to kiss more often than I do. I write micros and flash that sit on my laptop in varying states of undress until I have the time or inclination to doll them up and release them into the light. I write lists not just of what I need to do but of what I observe. I write in a journal I keep for my daughter, whereby I tell her how much I love her, where I’m screwing up and working to do better, and what I wish for her when she’s older and holds these pages in her hands.
Perhaps I am going about the writing life all wrong. Perhaps I’m writing exactly as I should. Perhaps fallow and fertile periods in writing are like the other circles of want I’ve held and hungered for in my life. I don’t know.
What I do know is that making a beloved recipe feels meditative, calming, and makes my house and child feel better, much like my writing process does for me. An act of creation is an act of love and resistance. As I re-read my favorite Glück poem, “Retreating Light,” this week, I remembered the persona of a world-worn mother speaking to her child. How to counsel, I imagine, a daughter on finding and recognizing a good story. How to make sense of the tragedies that surround us. Despite all of our pain and suffering, how revolutionary it is to dream by an open window.
Michaella Thornton learned how to bake at the hips of her mother and her grandmother Anna Lee. A lifetime ago, she baked professionally before realizing baker’s hours require early mornings. Kella’s prose has been featured in Brevity, Essay Daily, Fractured Lit, Hobart After Dark, Reckon Review, New South, Southeast Review, among others, and her writing has been nominated for a James Beard award and Best of the Net. Many moons ago, Kella received her MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of Arizona. She lives in St. Louis, Missouri with her daughter.