A single person stirred, moved.
I went to a lovely author event at Harvard Book Store.
The room was full. Gunst and Jessica chatted and the audience had a chance to ask a few questions. I took notes. Stir is a memoir about brain injury, recovery, and travelling back to the fullness of health, using cooking, food, and her kitchen as means to regain her sense of self and her “everyday.” Along the way, she lost sight in her left eye, lost binocular depth perception, lost and regained her sense of smell, began her cooking blog Sweet Amandine, and realized gratitude. As she says, today, she is “floating on gratitude,” “aggressive gratitude,” for her health, family, friends, career, life.
“Cooking gave me my generosity back.”
Jessica speaks as beautifully and exquisitely as she writes. I scribbled all I could in my little notebook, whose cover is stamped with “Luck favors the brave.” Jessica said they she first didn’t want to write a memoir of illness and recovery. She mentioned Vivian Gornick who writes about the distinction of “situation” and “story” to illustrate her reservations about writing a memoir. While Jessica felt that while she could write about “bloody brains and harrowing experience” she did yet view her illness experience as a story.
After surgeries, Jessica tried to continue her PhD in Jewish Literature at Harvard, but felt alienated from her work, saying “alienated from my work, alienated from my everyday.” Gunst offered that perhaps ” love of food and cooking were a Geiger counter for when she was close and far away from her health.” Gaining health felt similar to “a shower after a fever breaks” (how beautiful is this description!)
“Everything happens for a reason. No. I don’t believe that.”
Things happen. Then, other things happen. Then other things happen, still. The reason is what we make of that.
Jessica describes the loss and recovery of her everyday. The little things like clearing a table of dishes after a dinner. In cooking, she could share a complicated cake requested by a close friend. The kitchen became “the arena” that helped Jessica “register things.”
“Food is the keeper of memories.
Food let’s us know who we are.”
Eventually, she started writing “episodes,” small bits of memory from her experiences and surgeries that she wanted to keep. Starting with the day the aneurysm happened, while running on a treadmill and after as she lay flat on the floor and paramedics arrived. She remembers the brain event very clearly, a slight “click” in her brain, then a small drip, rolling down the back of her skull, like a bead of water (I think I have that right). These experiential episodes grew in number until she had given her editor about “30,000 words.” Then, she scrapped all of the episodes and began to fully write her story.
“No one outside of me can five me that confidence, drain my fear.”
She was really lovely. So full of love, grace, and light. I hope I’ve captured an ounce of the beauty within the room, filled with her words and her heart. I look forward to binge reading her entire blog and her future books.
“Beginnings are everywhere.”
Also, if you tweet about Stir, use: #StirtheBook.
Reads & References
- Jessica Fechtor, Stir
- Sweet Amandine
- Kathy Gunst is also Resident Chef of Boston’s WBUR’s cooking show, Here & Now.