Driving a curving, ice-sleeted road near home, we slide. In our ‘93 Toyota Camry, my mom stays calm somehow and, from the passenger seat says something like, “We’re going in the ditch.” In the backseat, Stella and Sam stop their chatter. Abandoning brakes and thought and maybe breathing, I just keep steering. We glide like a slow boat—first to the left, then towards the right ditch, then undeniably into the left ditch. At the last minute I touch the brake, and in some astonishing wonder of physics, we gracefully turn 180 degrees and stop still, facing where we had started. Still on the road. Still a week to go before the election.
On Wednesday morning, November 9, the kids’ French toast burns when I run upstairs for I forget what. A charred smell takes over the kitchen, then drifts into the mudroom. There, it mingles with our farm boots and ends up smelling just like calf dehorning—seared flesh and burned hair mixed with wet shit. The smell seems to fit the day.
On Wednesday morning, the physical therapy room at ground level in our community’s small hospital steadily fills with white men. They are verbally thumping their chests at the women and the one person of color. “You seem really edgy this morning,” my PT tells me, and she hisses. Later, I walk over to the men and shake a hand and say, “Congratulations. I hope this change you’re excited about includes more kindness. I hope you can be kind.” I want to say more, but I’ve used my available breath. I walk away, gulping air.
On Wednesday night, a petite, fierce musician on a blue-lit stage presses her eyes. Her whole career has been poetry music that amplifies voices of people nobody hears, trying to sing towards change. Tonight, she speaks to us in uncharacteristic understatement.
“Tell us how you really feel,” someone yells from the darkened audience.
“I’m really trying to play it straight here,” Ani DiFranco says.
“Go off the rails,” someone yells.
She laughs, but mutedly, like it’s a little hard to get enough oxygen for a big open laugh.
Later she stands without her guitar, just a poem from years ago, saying,
“I sing sometimes like my life is at stake, ‘cause you’re only as loud as the noises you make. I’m learning to laugh as hard as I can listen, ‘cause silence is violence in women and poor people. If more people were screaming then I could relax, but a good brain ain’t diddley if you don’t have the facts…We live in a breakable, takeable world, an ever available possible world,”
and her words will ferment in my head for days.
On Thursday night, after the kids are asleep, I sit down, then stand up, walk to the kitchen, then back to the sofa. I suck my teeth and turn on my phone and turn it off. Discarding all other media, I look for books, but can’t settle. I pick up The Art of Fermentation, by Sandor Ellix Katz and open it to Chapter Three and read that fermentation is transformative action. “‘Mixed cultures are the rule in nature,’” and I digest this, slowly.
Here is a process that utilizes—demands—diversity and produces energy without oxygen. It works in dark places. It smells powerful and makes tangy, amazing things. From it emerge sauerkraut, kimchi, chutney, miso, tempeh, dilly beans, and a hundred other pickles. We get yogurt, kefir, kombucha, and just plain vinegar. Without it, we would miss wines, meads, ciders, beers. Mixed cultures. Transformation.
For everyone struggling to breathe this week, maybe this stench is something burned and inedible, and maybe it is something beginning to ferment. Something that will make the invisible visible, that will bubble and rise, that will feed us.