Up until seven months ago, Maine was the last state in the union that I’d never been to. Living a nomadic lifestyle into my forties, I’d at least stopped to get gas in each of the other forty-nine. But Maine had eluded me. Maine is not a just-passing-through kind of place. If one plans to ever step foot in the state, one must intend to go there.
So finally, last October, my husband and I took a vacation and spent ten, solid days there, decisively ending my lifelong quest to bag the Big Fifty.
And I couldn’t have picked a better place to finish. Maine is drop-dead gorgeous and the people who live there are as solid and generous as their land. I even found myself thinking about moving there a few times during the trip which was surprising since 1) I have no desire to abandon my children and family on the other side of the continent, 2) I’ve become a high desert creature and at my age probably wouldn’t adapt well and, 3) I don’t much care for lobster.
Not that I knew this last about myself before we went. I’ve lived landlocked and relatively poor most of my adult life so lobster as a cuisine choice was never an option. Not so in Maine, however. No, no, madames et monsieurs. You see in Maine, in October, it’s lobster high season and during this time period the little bottom dwellers are readily and cheaply available to everyone, high or low.
And I was ready for it. I was eager. I was all about putting on a bib and whacking a little, orange carcass to pieces with a wooden mallet. (Although it turns out that’s crab. For lobster, one uses a nutcracker.)
We stayed with a couple of natives (Mainers in the local vernacular), foodie friends who were excited to deflower the lobster-virgin. They decided to initiate me Maine style with whole boiled lobster to be dismembered by hand, and a hot butter dip. We went down to the famous and fabulous Harbor Fish Market to select our critters…which is where I made my first big mistake.
While the others shopped for chowder ingredients to round out the meal I stood near the giant tank where the fresh catch is held, watching the store-guy fish lobsters out of the dark water for customers. He held them up in the air, turned over on their backs, while their claws, legs, and little antenna waved helplessly in the air, groping for something familiar from their own ocean world. They were bewildered, not realizing yet that their old life was gone forever. I felt a pang of kinship.
That feeling of dislocation is familiar to me. Back when I made my first descent into a major depressive episode, I too felt disoriented and frightened by the foreign (albeit internal) landscape I landed in. I did a lot of waving and groping of my own back then, trying to return to the familiarity of my old life. It took me a while to figure out that I could never go back, and even longer to realize (unlike the lobsters) that I didn’t really want to. The Woman I Was had grown up on too many secrets. Turns out she needed to go if I was ever to achieve a sense of wholeness.
But I digress. Back in the fish market I shook off my brief unease and, determined to enjoy the whole experience, joined the others as they returned to the car, lobsters tucked away in a cooler, packed in ice. By the time evening rolled around they were still very much alive and waving away at us. Our hostess was busy in the kitchen, preparing to cook them, and I was busy up in my head, preparing mentally for the sacrifice to come. I take dying seriously, no matter what kind of life is engaged in doing it. I always have. It’s not that I see anything wrong with life coming to an end. I don’t. To me it’s a law of nature that stands tall and respected along with the rest. It’s something that’s happening all the time, everywhere, all around us and there’s nothing that we see, touch, eat, smell, use, value, wear, want, hold, or love that isn’t at some point, somewhere in the chain of it’s existence, touched by, involved in, or responsible for the dying of something else. Nothing.
And that’s comforting to me. It’s how I know that nothing’s going wrong. Dying is supposed to happen. That knowledge helps anchor me, whenever I come up against it myself. I use it to brace for the maelstrom that always accompanies dying, by remembering oh yeah, it’s just time.
It was always going to be time.
That evening, in the home of our friends, it was those lobsters’ time and I didn’t have a problem with that. But I was also responsible for it, they were being killed in my honor, and that was a big deal to me. So in return, out of gratitude and respect, I wanted to make sure that their dying went as smoothly as possible. It seemed like the least I could do.
Unfortunately, what I didn’t understand about the process involved in killing them was a lot.
Our hostess was tolerant, respectful, and perhaps a little amused as I knelt by the cooler and said last rites over them. Then, after studying her method as she transferred a couple to the pot, I picked one up myself, walked over and, with one last quick prayer, pushed it headfirst into the boiling water after which I stood back to watch.
Enter: The maelstrom.
The lobster mythology that I’d heard over the years said they die the instant they hit the water. That’s what I figured was going to happen. Too late I realized that, having lived most of my life among inland people who had no easy access to lobster as a recipe ingredient, the stories I’d heard about how to cook them all came from others like myself who knew nothing about it.
Turns out they don’t die instantly. At least this one didn’t. I stood staring in horror as his limbs and antenna continued to wave around under the surface of the boiling water for an unconscionable period of time. It’s not that he appeared to be in acute pain. At least not that I could tell. He wasn’t screaming for help or trying to climb out of the pot or anything. But he was clearly conscious and experiencing all the sensations that go along with full body immersion in boiling water and, as that realization dawned, my prayers did an abrupt reversal in tone from blessings and thanks to something more along the lines of Dear holy God, what have I done?
I couldn’t move. I kept saying But it’s still moving…it’s still moving over and over until finally our hostess walked over and gently, compassionately put the lid back on the pot so I couldn’t see inside anymore. It broke the spell and I fell away from the stove, badly shaken. Needless to say my appetite was gone. Obliterated. It had been replaced by a low grade nausea which I did everything in my power to hide. After all, I was the one who had asked for this and they’d knocked themselves out to give it to me.
I was now facing a dilemma. I discovered I no longer wanted to eat a lobster. The allure was definitely, definitely gone. However, there was a whole potful of the little guys who had just been boiled to death for my edification and there was no way in hell I could walk away now. I had to eat one. In fact, I had to eat every last shred of anything conceivably edible I could rip off its little carcass, because I couldn’t let it go to waste. Not after what I’d just seen.
Whoops…I went way too long again. I’ll have to stop here and finish next week. Stay tuned.
copyright 2010 Dia Osborn