Thus it is that when we walk in the valley of twofold solitude we know little of the tender affections that grow out of endearing words and actions and companionship. – Helen Keller, The Story of My Life
Every once in a while, I’m tripping through life and realize I have nothing to say.
Or – I have too much to say, but I don’t know how to say it.
I could talk about Milwaukee and how the weather, white skies and fat snowdrops, followed me back east. I should describe my date, a tall midwestern intellectual with fancy shoes, a beat-up BMW, and a deep appreciation of Milwaukee. How we drove around town, watched a play, ate dinner and huge slices of chocolate and lemon cream pies. I’d mention his secret knowledge of the environmental initiatives the Red Lobster franchise is attempting since cleaning up our oceans and seas is a matter of survival for the company. In order to plunder, they need to protect.
“Sustainability is survival. Survival, sustainability,” he told me at a red light. Though most large companies don’t care about anything but perpetuating themselves, some find themselves standing awkward before the looking-glass where, just beyond the wavering reflection of their shiny plastic wonderlands, the stark truth is coming clear. If they continue to destroy the environments and people who provide their products, one day the kitchen will close and cheese biscuits will be 86’d forever.
It’s as if these companies, each one a Rip Van Winkle, went to sleep in the seventies and only now are waking up to the destruction they happily pursued while they were dreaming.
Also, I should note that in places like Milwaukee, there are people who feel like they can change their corner of the world. In the best possible ways. I liked that.
But, I’m in the weeds and I can’t find the doorstep to my story.
When this happens, I start mining.
First, I ask around for ideas. Then I look up recipes. If all else fails, I google a random historic character, become expert on them via their Wikipedia page, and blindly extrapolate the meaning of life from my topical and incorrect assumptions based on the three to six concise paragraphs written about them.
Take Helen Keller.
Started off a golden-haired infant of wealthy parents. Had every advantage. And then it came to pass, when she was nineteen months old, that she lost her sight and hearing in one fell swoop. Popular culture would have you believe that she was a beast of a child, reckless and frustrated, until Annie Sullivan arrived and cracked her world wide open.
That’s the Hollywood version. The Wikipedia version’s even more interesting.
During her toddling years, Helen created her own language, simple, to be sure, but effective. And the cook’s child, Martha, a smart little girl in her own right, with none of the advantages of wealth or privilege, understood it. They were friends and fellow mischief makers. Perhaps this relationship of equality, which existed in an economically and racially segregated society, laid the foundation for Helen’s lefty political leanings. I mean, if you can’t see and you can’t hear, I would imagine it’s hard to place people into categories.
How did this little girl, existing in a state of quasi-isolation, come to be a great humanitarian? Why did she care so deeply about a world she could not see and people she would never hear? Did she remember her mother’s looks or her father’s voice? Did she ever cry for her losses even as she made them her strengths?
And why did she name her favorite doll Nancy? Perhaps the name rolled pleasingly off her palm.
If you give yourself a moment to consider these questions, I think you’ll agree that Helen Keller is far more interesting than reading about how I set my kitchen on fire trying to heat up a pop tart on my gas stove.
I want to start a Helen Keller fan club. We’ll meet at Red Lobster and eat Cheddar Bay biscuits and discuss what Helen might think of the challenges the corporate giant faces today. We’ll pretend she’s sitting with us and we’ll tell her about the Equal Pay Act and the high-ranking women who seek to quash women’s rights. What were these movements and laws anyway, but natty little words on paper that Helen fought through her darkness to help write.
We can draw on the placemats and eat biscuits with our eyes closed. And maybe we’ll learn to read lips like Helen did, one hand pressed gently to the mouth of whoever is speaking.
My grandmother used to love Red Lobster. Like Helen, she was sick with Scarlett fever when she was young and lost her hair. When she recovered and returned to school, a mean boy pulled the scarf off her head and all the children laughed. She never went back.
I wonder if in her early life in Russia, she felt like she was walking through a jagged and dangerous cave. Growing up fatherless and poor, I imagine there were moments where every breathe cradled the deafening whisper of confusion. Her family crawled through the darkness of Europe and into the U.S., leaving one crippled future for another.
But don’t we all turn away from the things we don’t want to see? Isn’t listening only to what you want to hear is a form of deafness?
Okay. So – here’s how to make cheese curds:
1. Clean everything.
2. Ripen the milk.
4. Cut the curd
5. Cook the curd.
6. Drain the curd.
Oh, never mind. Here’s the recipe. I don’t want to be blamed for any cheese curd disasters.
You know that conversation starter question, “if you could have a conversation with one dead person, who would it be?”
Helen Keller. And Annie Sullivan. Together.
We’d meet at high tea. I think they would like that. Petit fours and cucumber sandwiches. Finger food and clotted creams. And scones.
I don’t think they would like Red Lobster. I’m sorry. Too much butter.
First, I’d tell her that my grandfather’s cousin’s husband ran for mayor in Milwaukee under the socialist party. Maybe she heard of him. Gave him an endorsement and a big thumbs up.
I’d catch her up on the happenings in the world, based on my limited world view.
We’d chat, Helen, Annie, and me. I’d explain about how we got trapped in the fool’s paradise in the sleeping giant’s backyard and ask what they think I can do to help the tiny corner of humanity I’m able to reach.
And then, maybe we’d about the surprising elegance of ladybugs, since that’s been on my mind.