No Substitutions

Sylvia: Erma, it’s been awhile.  Come on over. I’m in the mood to whip something up in the kitchen and could use some company. 

Erma: Do you need me to pick up any ingredients on my way over? Cake mix? Slice’n Bake cookie dough? Take-Out?  

Sylvia:  Oh no, none of that, Erma.  It’s all about starting from scratch this time…and no substitutions.

Erma: Good girl, now you’re catching on.

Sylvia hung up the phone and hurriedly moved across the kitchen to get the coffee going. After all, that was the beverage of choice for these two ladies when they were about to engage in deep conversation to offset otherwise mundane midday activities.  As Sylvia reached into the cupboard to grab the canister of French roast, she hesitated. Without over thinking, she closed the cupboard door and instead picked up her pace ever so slightly as she ventured to the wine rack in the corner of the dining room and selected a red blend, one befitting their friendship, their past conversations, and the time of day: Dreaming Tree Crush. Yes, by all means, yes.  This is exactly what Sylvia and Erma would need to analyze life’s recent events and to contemplate the future with just the right amount of wisdom and whimsy.  They could only benefit by a a bit of the grape to get them through the cooking portion of the afternoon, lest they forget the actual motivation for their impromptu get-together.

Sylvia, bottle and corkscrew in hand, returned to the kitchen to retrieve the stemless wine glasses she had yet to use, and this occasion seemed more than perfect for them if she and Erma were going to be multi-tasking.  Rustling around counter-tops covered with everything from flour to eggs to spices, and an opened bottle of red of course, called for stemless, much like coffee with her friend necessitated the over-sized, earthenware mugs. Clad in her black yoga pants and a vintage college sweatshirt, Sylvia threw on an apron and used the wine key to uncork the bottle and pour herself a couple of sips (a taste-test, let’s say).  At the very instant the crimson potion touched her lips, Sylvia realized something that for some reason had never occurred to her until that moment- when you want something, you want it. And no matter what anyone tells you, including all of the well-intentioned admonitions you are offered, there is never an adequate substitute for something your palate wants, your stomach craves, or your heart desires. No substitutions. Your decisions, big and small, much like a choice between coffee and wine, are made either painstakingly or swiftly, for better or worse.  In either case, once a commitment has been made, anything and everything else just won’t do. It’s not simply coffee or wine, ice cream or chocolate.  It’s more, much more.   It’s the difference between surviving and living. It’s the difference between living life and loving the life you live.

Sylvia poured herself a few more swallows (yes, sticking with the red) and sat down with the recipe box her mother had passed down to her.  Yep. Going to definitely make something from scratch. “I’ve got all of the ingredients right here in front of me.”

As Sylvia waited for Erma and thumbed through recipes, she kept revisiting the revelation that those first tastes of Dreaming Tree brought to light.  She herself had long been trying to satisfy her cravings with everything except that which appealed to her most. And the exchanges were indeed ridiculous!  In fact, in retrospect, the substitutions she had made to appease herself were neither sufficient nor satisfying in the least. For a few minutes, she thought about what she had done especially in recent months and even about life choices she had made as recently as yesterday.  Sylvia, taking another sip and this time letting it rest on her tongue, came to an unsettling realization: the things, the experiences, and the people that she sought to replace, whether for a brief moment in time or for the rest of eternity, could not be switched out. And as many times as she had tried to rebuild herself, strengthen her resolve to live a happier life, and to allow herself to love, she concluded that somehow her dreams had been crushed.  Her hopes and desires weren’t extinguished by anything or anyone; they hadn’t even become a blend of her wants and the desires and needs of the important others who comprised her tribe. Looking into the bottom of the stemless wine tumbler, she finally comprehended the main source of her discontent. She had settled. She was still settling. Sylvia’s dreams, hopes, desires, cravings, and wants had always been substituted for something other than that which she truly yearned for. She never wanted to be the peacemaker. She never wanted to be the people-pleaser.  She never wanted to be an angst-ridden fifty-something who looked lovely on the outside but who was dying on the inside.  Sylvia realized that she had replaced all that she wanted with everything to make those around her like her, admire her, love her, and respect her.  And while her soul was being whittled away each time she conceded or retreated, she met disappointment head-on because there was no replacement for what she wanted. Sylvia. Sylvia wanted to love and be loved on her terms.  So, while her tribe had been content with her fulfilling their needs and helping them realize their dreams, she had failed to demand or ask of them the one thing that she had wanted from them. She yearned for them to know her and treat her with the respect that she had shown them. She had accepted less, much less. But no more. No substitutions.

The door bell rang, and as she opened the door widely to welcome her trusted friend and confidante, Sylvia smiled and declared, “I’m ready to start from scratch.  Come on in.”

Are you there, Sylvia? It’s me, Erma. Pick up.

Sylvia, Sylvia, for Christ’s sake, pick up the phone. Did you make it to your final destination? How was the layover in Charlotte? 

So, what do you think? Did she make it to her final destination?  Well, here’s the thing about going places. Each step that one takes, each stop along the way- no matter how big or small-each wrong turn or unexpected detour is by itself a destination. Part of one’s journey and perhaps even in the bigger picture part of one’s fate or destiny. So, yes, Sylvia made it. In fact, she made it to several destinations, o-ver and o-ver and o-ver again. 

Sylvia and Cam sat quietly at the bar, and as all of the extraneous noise dissipated around them and all of the onlookers, patrons, and passersby faded into the background, they remained there next to each other, fingertips now gently touching, gazing intensely and wantingly into one another’s eyes, and smiling so big that all that existed between them was warmth and desire. Heat. Pure heat. Palpable sexual tension. Tension if left leashed would surely suffocate them. 

Sylvia never realized that her fingertips were so sensitive, but with each gentle brushing of his against hers, a shiver traveled; her heart raced, and butterflies began to flutter. And just when the fingertip dance seemed as if it was waning, Cam laid his hand on the bar next to hers, palm up, all the while inviting her with his eyes to put her hand in his. In the very instant she obliged, their eyes met and then their lips. 

Her lips had not been kissed so fully, gently, and yearningly in forever. And although they had just met, their connection flowed naturally. No awkwardness. No apprehension. For the first time in a very long time, Sylvia thought of no one but herself.  Perhaps even thoughts of herself escaped her when Cam invited her into that instant. She wasn’t obsessing about anything or anyone. Her world, the one that Erma had encouraged her to take a break from, ceased to exist.  The only vision that Sylvia had was of that “steamy, hot cup of coffee” and at the moment, it was real. He was real. With the meeting of lips and seamless intertwining of tongues, Sylvia’s body and soul awakened. She and Cam were no longer sitting side by side, although exactly when their bodies had changed position she was not aware. They faced each other, and taking a momentary reprieve from the deliciousness of their soft, gentle kisses, they looked at one another and knew that something special-something so simply sensual and new yet inexplicably pleasing and familiar – was happening. 

Just as they stood hand in hand ready to set off and explore one another, the loud speaker beckoned, “American Airlines flight 136 to Chicago is now scheduled for departure. Anyone holding a boarding pass should proceed to Gate C15.” Sylvia,however, wasn’t hurrying for the flight. Intrigued by and eager to continue this adventure rather than what awaited her in Chicago, she made a bold move, one that was spontaneous and unlike her (or maybe this was the real Sylvia-champing at the bit to explore uncharted territory). As they held hands tightly and their energies fueled one another, she asked, “So, what’s your schedule?” His reply came quickly and unrehearsed, “I’m planning on taking a day or two to become well-acquainted with a new friend if she has the time.” Unable to resist the twinkle in his eye and the sincerity in his voice, Sylvia commented, “Perfect. Just perfect.” 

Flight 136 departed without Sylvia.  And in what seemed to be an instant, the layover in Charlotte became her destination. Their destination. 

“And if I didn’t think, I’d be much happier,” said Sylvia.* And lo and behold she was; and it was only the beginning. 

*The final quote in the above blog post is taken from Sylvia PlathThe Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath

​The Best Cup of Coffee Sylvia Ever Had

When I’m at my wit’s end, there are several things that I do to relieve stress, to create a little distraction, and to stop obsessing about the harsh realities that life seems to be dealing me.  So, of course, this got me to thinking about Sylvia and Erma and how each of them might have escaped the trials, troubles, and tedium that accompany women’s daily routines. Neither one of these women was boring, mind you (and I’d like to think I’m fairly interesting and maybe even a fine mélange of fun and unpredictability), but there are always hours throughout the week when every woman- if she’s honest- is bored.  Not in a “bored silly” kind of way because that would be manageable.  Rather in an “oh my God, if I have to do or say that one more time, I won’t even want to be around myself” kind of way.  It’s that kind of irksome monotony that can drive a woman crazy, and I do believe it is a feeling akin mostly to women because we happen to be blessed -or cursed, depending on how irked we are at any particular moment in time-with the maternal, nurturing, less self-absorbed nature. (And before you guys who read this start to vilify me and think that I’m maligning you for being egocentric, I’m not. Egocentrics we can deal with; narcissists, however, are not welcomed.)  

Although Sylvia was in her early 30s when she felt that she had no other option than to give in to her torment, I am once again thinking that Erma might have been able to help her. That’s the Pollyanna in me.  That’s the nurturer, the caregiver, the unrelenting problem solver.  I still can’t bear to imagine the pain Sylvia was in. And for that reason perhaps, and because in my mind, Erma has helped me and so many other wives, mothers, and women-of-a-certain-age, I believe that Erma would have given Sylvia this incredibly wonderful piece of advice: “Sylvia, dear friend, make yourself a very strong, piping hot cup of coffee. Don’t use a flimsy, petite, porcelain cup. Grab a mug, one made of stoneware that actually holds more than a cup and a half and that will keep in the heat. Now, take your coffee, sit at the head of the table, and look into that steaming hot vessel of dark, aromatic liquid. Inhale and be sure to close your eyes. Sylvia, allow yourself a daydream of the best kind.”

What’s the best kind?  Hmm. (Wink, wink.) 

Sylvia did just as Erma suggested, and lo and behold, that loathsome, annoying feeling of malaise dissipated with each waft of freshly brewed java.  The steam wasn’t coming from the coffee any longer. The steam that began to envelop Sylvia was in fact coming from within.

What caught her eye wasn’t his body, though his physique alone would have explained the vapors that even the most refined of women would have felt. He was muscular and sturdy and oozed desire. His biceps were bulging and tattooed tastefully.  He looked like the stereotypical bad boy. He was everything that she was not supposed to want. Sylvia, sitting with her eyes shut gently over the hot coffee that was now leaving her skin dewy in an unsettling yet not uncomfortable way, continued to examine him. The body was indeed attractive and rugged, toned and meaty in all the right places. But that wasn’t it. Sylvia could feel herself smiling, her cheeks blushed and glistening likely more from her thoughts than from the beverage in front of her. Her eyes, though still lightly shut, were oddly staring into his. There, before her, was what she had been missing. She saw in those smiling, hazel eyes that which she hadn’t even known she was looking for. She saw strength and kindness. In those piercing, soulful, walnut-colored eyes, she discovered herself. Her fragility. Her weakness. Her femininity.  

Sylvia-a-a.  Sylvia-a-a.  Open your eyes.  Snap out of it. The coffee’s gone cold, but don’t worry, you can make a fresh pot any time you like. 

For all the Sylvias drowning out there in tragic tedium or simply drifting in monotony, and in honor of all the Ermas who remind us to take time for ourselves, remember that there is no harm in indulging in a bold, strong, steamy cup of coffee now and again.  

Cheers.