Monday, November 25, 2013

Snowflake Soup

My voice is the voice of privilege. Want a specific breakdown? It's a white voice, a male voice, a Christian voice, a voice whose parents are still married after 27 years. This voice owns a car, pays rent, affords luxuries. This voice gets his grad school tuition paid for. This voice complains about things like having too many clothes. This voice stops counting his blessings because he can't count that high. If you could listen to The Man talk, he would probably sound like me.

(Is the self-doubt too subtle? It might be too subtle.)

Let's detour to Marion, Illinois. The year is 1996 or thereabouts. I am tall for my age, with gigantic faux-horn-rimmed glasses and protuberant buck teeth.

My grampa and gramma live half an hour away, in Carbondale. They live in the same house their parents lived in for years. It's great that they live so close--sometimes my grampa, an amateur geologist, comes over and demonstrates how fold mountain ranges are formed. He uses a bath towel to show us.

Marion winters come slowly but with strange violence. High winds and heavy snow-dumps happen regularly, and as regularly the drifts are swallowed by muddy, grassy earth. My mother tells us we may not play in the snow when it's below zero. We immediately become very interested in finding out every day's temperature.

The first snowfall of every winter, my gramma makes us snowflake soup. It's awesome and thick and creamy, and I feel sleepy after I eat it. Snowflake soup becomes as ritual as Thanksgiving, sometimes happening before, usually after.

What a sweet story. Here's another. When I was running regularly this summer, my evening route would take me past a certain bus stop on the corner of 8th and Wells. I knew to breathe through my mouth as I rounded that corner every evening, because the homeless woman who slept on the bench of the bus stop smelled rather pungent.

Another detour. This one won't take you far, Dear Reader--just two weeks ago today, to Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The first snowfall of the year, and somehow I remember a tradition I had nearly forgotten: snowflake soup.

My towel-folding grampa passed away more than a year ago, but my gramma still lives in the ancestral mansion. I don't contact her often enough, but this time the chain of connection is obvious: first snowfall, snowflake soup, gramma. I send her an email reminiscing about snowflake soup--a memory, not a request, but she sends me a box with snowflake soup mix, a recipe, a piece of glassware shaped like a snowman. She even sends imitation bacon bits, which I had forgotten were an absolutely fundamental part of snowflake soup.

She didn't forget.

I get the box on Saturday, but I wait until it snows again--we must hold fast to the traditions of our forefathers, you see. It snows today, and I look forward to the snowflake soup all day long. And then I make it, and eating it fills me up just like it used to. It's so awesome and thick and creamy, you see. Memory in a bowl.

Should I feel guilty for being privileged? I'm not sure. Should I feel guilty for judging that homeless woman, even implicitly? Absolutely. Could I give more to those less blessed than me? Most likely. Should I be doing more to help the smelly ones, the hairy ones, the ones who mutter to themselves? Of course.

Answering those questions--that's easy. But in the first draft of this post, in which I asked rhetorically how the homeless men clustered outside the Milwaukee Rescue Mission would react to my idyllic story, I generalized. I assumed that all of those men have had bad, un-idyllic lives--that because they're smelly now they always were smelly.

That's wrong, I'm pretty sure. And maybe if I had ever been smelly, I would be more aware of the breadth of catastrophe that can make people smelly. I would be less willing to generalize. Maybe my privilege means I'm fundamentally unable to understand them. Maybe my privilege even manifests in the fact that I think about them as them.

But snowflake soup is so awesome, and thick, and creamy.

"O, speak to me no more!
These words like daggers enter in mine ears."

(Hamlet, III.iv)