How to Cook a Wolf
“Use as many fresh things as you can, always, and then trust to luck and your blackout cupboard and what you have decided, inside yourself, about the dignity of man.” – MFK Fisher.
My title is perhaps disarming, as I allude to something more culinary than literary. I want to take a lesson from MFK Fisher here for how to grieve in times of war; how to pull loam from the cracked earth and how to make something out of no-way products. I want to mix genres, at least in this beginning, as the work of grief is always a broken bridge to a past we cannot fathom and a future we cannot yet see.
My mother put The Bluest Eye in my hands when I was thirteen. I am still not sure whether it was for pain or for pleasure. Nevertheless, Toni Morrison opened up the bittersweet of blackness for me; found a language for my girlknowing. In turning the pages of that slim novella, I began to know what was possible. I coveted the passages from that book like salve on the open wound of my girlhood and when bullied by the other girls at school, I whispered “quiet as it’s kept” as if it were some kind of magic curse, a language only I knew or could fathom. I scared them off with feigned insanity. I believed, as we do when we are young and love novels, that the book’s lexicon was for me and no other. For a generation of us raised by wolves and parenting our emotional selves for the most part, she anchored our deepest feeling, gave shape to some of our most fervent nightmares, pulled us from soaking sheets in the heart of summer to read by the waning light. She taught us how to cook a wolf (sorry PETA) in times both lean and fat.
She taught me how to inhabit my blackness – full, funky and yes, dangerous. She taught me how to be a good mother. Not by her example, because I didn’t know her that way; I leave that story for others to tell. She taught me how to be a mother, because of the look in Sula’s eye as she watched her own mother burn. I knew then that if I ever had children, I wouldn’t want them to watch me burn like that: with interest.
As my brother-in-mind, Robert Warrior reminded me when he texted me today, to hold me in my grief, she taught me how to love: “she’s a friend of my mind. She gathers me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them right back to me in all the right order. It’s good, you know, when you got a woman who is a friend of your mind.” Or, to add to that: “Love is never any better than the lover.” Now ain’t that the truth. She taught me that love is the way to recognize black genius.
In the fall of 1986, I rolled out of bed with Audre Lorde and Cherrie Moraga, Simone de Beauvoir and Shulamith Firestone and into Gloria Naylor’s course on African American Women’s Literature. Feckless, but hungry like a starving wolf, I had no idea then what an astounding privilege it was to be in that classroom. It has been a long time since that semester, but during that course, we felt our collective power, the words spilling out of those texts belonged to us and no one else. I was thirteen all over again. The course culminated with a visit by Morrison to our campus. She came to our class; I don’t remember much except gawking with wonder. I was the one designated to bring her the coffee she requested in advance of her reading. I rushed to the International Center coffeehouse on Princeton’s campus, announced that I was procuring coffee for Toni Morrison! and skated to the front of the line. With coffee in hand and in a way that only another Capricorn can understand, I agonized about where to put it: on the podium where it would surely spill or safely below where it might be missed, but still readily available to her. She never got that cup, and years later, she teased me about it and my literary crush was complete.
I remember that day like you recall a picture that hangs in a museum – the viewing of which leaves you so shaken, your nose hairs bristle with the smell of the room and your iris senses the prism of light catching you now and then again, later. Morrison was reading from her forthcoming novel, Beloved. “124 was spiteful. . . .” I was transfixed and knew that this was no ghost story, but a return and a reckoning. It took me almost another decade to write about that novel. It seized me with a familiar and comforting terror. I knew that the world that my grandmother knew about, but rarely spoke of, had come alive, unfolding like a living thing and that world demanded recognition.
She taught me how to lose everything, except for my freedom. Then she taught me how to be okay with losing that too. For a while.
Years later, after that Beloved essay and the death of a close friend and colleague, I returned to her words in the not-yet-halogen light of Sula’s ending pages: “girlgirlgirlgirlgirl.” And years even after that, in the small corner of a shared room in hospice care, as my mother roared quietly toward the endpoint of her time in this world, we listened together as Toni Morrison read from The Bluest Eye. We didn’t get far that night, but I remember Morrison’s voice. . . “Quiet as it’s kept . . . .”
Toni Morrison, nee Chloe Wofford. Rest in power and in love, knowing you have forged a revolution.