I was looking for a better way to mark time. To keep my days from blurring together, which seemed to be devolving into a dull, endless loop of unfinished to-dos. So last Thanksgiving, inspired by Gina Hamadey’s Thank You Year, I decided to write one thank you note every day for a year — first to my best friends, then my mentors, healers, to my husband; new friends, writers, politicians I admired. Then in January, spurred on by Epicurious’ Cook 90 challenge, I decided to cook three meals a day for 30 days.
You’re so ambitious! my fellow mom-friends said when I mentioned my twin projects (careful to not call them resolutions). I could never!
Yes, I wanted to become a better, bolder, more efficient cook. Yes, I wanted to reach out to people whose lives had touched mine.
But how could I explain to my friends that this double project felt like the opposite of ambition — and that that’s exactly what I wanted? It felt like a ritual, something that’s repeated without a culminating moment; without the need for a culminating moment. There was no grand plan, no overarching mission, no prize or recognition at the end of it all. The cards would be dropped in the mail and disappear from my life. The meals would be cooked and eaten and I’d have to start all over again in a few hours with a new onion. In this way, it wasn’t at all like devoting one hour to your novel every morning at sunrise for a year and ending up with a draft.
Instead it felt like reading Torah each week on the Sabbath. I didn’t grow up remotely religious, so it was only as an adult, sitting through the entire service with my daughter week after week, that I learned that you take the Torah out every Saturday, carry it around the room to be kissed and touched, all while singing the same prayers, and then read a little at a time. And when you get to the end? You start over, telling the same stories again and again, perhaps falling on a slightly different interpretation, seeing a story a marginally different way. But the point of it is the repetition. The point is to show up. To try again. One does it to glean insights, but one also does it to mark time, to see oneself grow through the process of doing something else, of getting your hands in the proverbial dirt, again and again.
These twin projects came at a time when I felt overwhelmed with, and oppressed by, the very idea of achievement. I was 41. A book I’d worked on for ten years was — after initial enthusiasm — languishing in several agents’ hands, and I was coming to the realization that it would probably never be sold. My daughter was five and needing me less, and we’d decided not to have another baby. We were finally settled in a city we’d likely stay in for a long while. All around me it felt like friends were selling books and having more babies, building and buying things. My husband was up for tenure, something he’d worked doggedly at for a decade. There would be a magnificent, culminating moment. (Spoiler: It came. We celebrated.)
But that moment wasn’t coming for me, or so it felt. I was the one who kept our house, and thus our lives, going — who packed the lunches and kept the toilet paper stocked; who volunteered for painting day and kept track of the birthday parties and dentist appointments; who threw dinner parties and visited friends in crisis and made plan after plan and then just reported to my husband what our weekends would look like. And all the while I worked, too, but I’d lost the thread. What did I want again? What was I supposed to be working toward? What was all this for?
Cooking religiously (for this is how it felt) and writing thank you notes every day reminded me, on a deep cellular level, that there was more to life — much more — than the big achievements, the books sold and deals made.
I grilled steak with butter and radishes and wrote to my old Jewish shrink in New York, the one I saw on the cusp of 30, reporting to him that I’d married exactly the kind of man he’d predicted I would (one who challenged me intellectually), never expecting he’d write me back. (He did.)
I baked chai tea cake and penned a letter to the physical therapist who got me through years of back pain, whose weekly visits to her Columbus Circle office kept me afloat.
I made disastrous bowls of various kinds — with quinoa, radishes, avocado and green goddess dressing, tasteless messes — and spent every morning for a month sitting in the quiet before my family awoke, sending off notes to my oldest, best friends, now scattered all over the world. Remember those meals we made at Oberlin? How we read Marge Piercy poems over candlelight and called ourselves feminists? You taught me what friendship means.
I placed the notes in the mailbox and felt a blooming happiness. I made a grocery list and found that it didn’t need to be a chore. It could be a kind of curated pleasure, an offering. For the first time in my life, I was doing things for others and expecting nothing in return.
There was simply this onion, this card, the particular joy of recalling a memory. There was the ritual of standing in the kitchen each morning and night and making something of your bounty. Of watching your husband’s eyes light up at the taste of a bolognese you’ve made for the first time, or of getting a thumbs up from your daughter after she’s eaten the steak you cooked for her. There was sitting down with a good pen and a stack of cards and a list of hundreds of people you cared about and letting your heart be known.
And there was the secret embedded at the heart of it all, one I didn’t understand until it was all over and one I had trouble articulating to others: It had all been partly selfish, this giving. I adored getting letters back, especially the surprising ones — from my high school English teacher, from a long-lost college friend — and greedily ripped open the envelopes before I even reached the door to my apartment.
I hadn’t done it for a response. I thought I’d done it to open up a channel, to begin a conversation, to bring a little joy to someone else — but in fact, I had just wanted to remind myself of all the joy I already had, of all the people I already loved, of all I could still do with my hands.
That was, it turns out, enough.
Abigail Rasminsky has written for the New York Times, The Washington Post, The Cut, Epicurious, Longreads, O: The Oprah Magazine, and Dance Magazine, among other publications. She teaches creative writing at Keck School of Medicine of USC.