I have a low pleasure threshold. I suppose another way to say this would be that I’m easily amused, as if I were living my life as a playful cat. This winter I’ve especially enjoyed watching falling snow here from the condo’s windows when the air currents surrounding this building caused the flakes to fall up. I find it intriguing to see how snow transforms Mt. Washington’s cliff side into stacked deckle edge book pages, depicting Pittsburgh’s geological stories. I’m still savoring my morning walk a week ago from Grant Street down Forbes Avenue when with my every step the snow softly squeaked. I know that I’m blessed to be retired, so I don’t have to drive every day no matter how snowy the roads become. Not commuting, too, is a pleasure: another reminder that I’m living a cat’s life, though my years as a tenured English professor gave me great pleasure with only occasional grief.
Beyond the stages of healing, grief, I’ve found, does have its simple pleasures such as learning to live alone. I’ve slowly transformed my living space into a place cleared of painful reminders and kept what soothes me. I’ve added an additional desk, a pair of floor lamps, a red velvet back pillow, a down comforter, plants, a plant stand, and lace curtains. I eat when and what I want to eat—lots of fresh fruit, vegetables, and oatmeal. The oatmeal has been something of a surprise that’s taken me a long time to understand.
Some of my earliest memories with my brother Joel are watching Mom cook oatmeal for our breakfast. Joel and I came up with a phrase to describe the emerging tiny steam explosions dotting the boiling oatmeal’s surface, “bubble stankers.” Though our phrase was faintly naughty, Mom never objected the same way she always would if we said “belly button” which made saying “bubble stankers” all the more delicious. Further, Mom always cooked oatmeal with raisins just for her and us kids, because Dad refused to eat any breakfast that didn’t consist of at least fried eggs and meat. Dad weighed 300 pounds; Mom 117. Gradually, I came to understand that serving oatmeal for breakfast was Mom’s quiet declaration of independence—her version of a low pleasure threshold. I’ve taken oatmeal a few steps further by adding white raisins, currants, or a selection of Jumbo Mixed raisins and eating it for lunch or even dinner.
Nearly forty years later, I encountered Galway Kinnell’s poem, “Oatmeal” even before he published it in his 1990 book, WHEN ONE HAS LIVED A LONG TIME ALONE. I immediately elevated “Oatmeal” to my poetry’s Top 10. It seems to me that though that poem is not his book’s title poem, it is the real heart of that collection. Kinnell’s “Oatmeal” speaker and John Keats who joins him for a breakfast porridge initially take a less enthusiastic approach to their breakfast cereal:
Keats said I was absolutely right to invite him: due to its glutinous
texture, gluey lumpishness, hint of slime, and unusual willingness
to disintegrate, oatmeal must never be eaten alone.
Keats then goes on to explain his composition of “Ode to a Nightingale” and to relate his poem’s lack of unity to eating oatmeal alone. (Only halfway through reading “Oatmeal” at this point I was laughing so hard I cried.) Kinnell recounts
[Keats] still wonders about the occasional sense of drift between stanzas,
and the way here and there a line will go into the configuration of a
Moslem at prayer, then raise itself up and peer about, and then lay
itself down slightly off the mark, causing the poem to move
forward with God’s reckless wobble.
After breakfast Keats recited “To Autumn” and then off-handedly gave credit for two of that ode’s most memorable images to a view of an oat field and to eating oatmeal alone. Lots of poets at that point would rest on their laurels, but not Galway Kinnell. He takes the poem further, gives a critical jab to Patrick Kavanagh by inviting him to eat oatmeal and presents the poem’s readers another line, a line that has somehow helped me to accept “God’s reckless wobble” and its relationship with my own grief:
Maybe there is no sublime, only the shining of the amnion’s tatters.
Like Galway Kinnell, I’ve come to enjoy eating oatmeal alone, and I’m willing to give him and his poems some of the credit for my easy pleasure.