CARPE DIEM IS NOT JUST A REALISTIC IMPERATIVE (BECAUSE, TRULY, WE NEVER KNOW HOW LONG WE HAVE). IT’S A VIBRANT INVITATION. WILL YOU RSVP? HERE’S THE STORY OF SOMEONE WHO DID.
Here in the South, it’s the tail-end of winter, and the start of spring.
As ever with the change of the seasons, I think about the cycles of life: what ends, what begins, how seamlessly but always surprisingly the wheel keeps turning. This is what I wrote about, in one way, in my book HOME PLACE:
I am also thinking about it because I am about to begin teaching Fearless Writing™, the Whole Enchilada version. It’s twelve sessions, taught on Sunday afternoons from 4:00 to 6:00 pm Central, over a three-and-a-half-month period. I teach it once a year, and this 2023 edition begins on Sunday, February 26. By the time you read this particular post, there may or may not be time to join it, or any available place yet (it’s limited to twelve). But, in any case, you can find out more about it here.
You might have heard of Fearless; either in one of the blog posts here, or in the lovely O Magazine story about my friend Hawa Diallo, who discovered her profound artistic gift – for painting! for visual art-making! – in a Fearless. Or, more recently, you may have read about it in passing in the comprehensive, generous article our state’s own Rex Nelson wrote about me in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
But I want to tell you a story about Fearless you haven’t heard… about a then-young man, wrapped chic-ly in a beautiful embroidery-edged cashmere shawl.
He first took a one-day Fearless class with me at a conference of the International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP) many years back. His first book, improbably, Betty Crocker’s Indian Home Cooking, had yet to be published. He was an eager, attentive student. And over the years, he became one of my dearest collegial friends and “pan pals” (my term for people I know through cooking and writing about cooking).
He continued coming to short Fearlesses whenever I taught them at IACP; at conferences in San Francisco, Portland, San Antonio, Louisville, Quebec, Minneapolis (his home city, though he was born in Kerala, India).
His name was and is Raghavan Iyer, and the New York Times just (on February 21, 2023) devoted a full article to his journey: from Kerala to Minnesota, from mainstreaming Indian food for Americans to following the worldwide curry trail, the subject of his most recent book, to developing The Revival Project, a searchable data base offering comfort food recipes from around the world to patients battling the tough effects of chemotherapy and other health challenges.
Along the way, as I said, Raghavan and I became true friends.
This was not only because he is a deeply lovable, funny soul, and not only because I know and love his home state, Kerala; not only because we both are deeply at home in the kitchen and enthusiastic about sharing our culinary discoveries.
But also because we laughingly created a two-person support group: in 2008 he was working on the incredible compendium 660 Curries, which ran to 800 pages. We not only shared the same editor and publisher (Suzanne Rafer, at Workman Publishing), we shared the fact that we authored the two biggest books Workman ever brought out (my Passionate Vegetarian was 1028 pages).
His latest book, On the Curry Trail, is also with Workman. While much shorter — 208 pages, 50 recipe — it spans the whole world. As I said in a review of it,
“On the Curry Trail is a tour de force, for as many different reasons as there are spices in a good masala. Readers and cooks will rejoice in Raghavan’s infectious curiosity and integrative thinking, which combine in this welcoming book. The engaging story is quietly backed with meticulous original research; the recipes are so seductive and interesting you’ll head immediately for the stove. A one-man culinary Lewis-and-Clark, he takes you on an explorer’s journey of food and culture, from India and Asia through Africa, the Middle East, Europe and the Americas. No one invites you into the world’s generous, connected, complex kitchen like Raghavan; no one else makes you feel equally at home, adventurous, and confident in your own kitchen. Bravo!”
Then, last year Raghavan took Fearless Writing™ : not at IACP but in the way I teach it now, to writers of every genre, not just culinary: online, via Zoom, on Sunday every week or other week, in a small cohort (Fearless is limited, so everyone gets lots of focus).
Here’s the thing: besides being a cook, a teacher, a writer, and a host on the Emmy-winning PBS television series Asian Flavors, Raghavan is also a stage IV cancer patient.
So when he jumped into Fearless in 2022, he was then in his last years, and he knew it. In no way did he hide this or over-emphasize it in class. Nor was there even a shred of self-pity.
Instead, he participated vibrantly, and everyone in class fell in love with him, right as they fell in love with their own writing. If he had to step out (because he was tired, or having a reaction to the drugs), he did. And then he returned.
Memorably, in one class he said to me — or was it in an email? — “I love the way you teach! You could teach writing to an ant!”
I have not yet tried teaching writing to an ant, but you never know.
What I do know is, Raghavan’s transparency about what he was facing and how writing (and our Fearless group) was helping, assisted others in the cohort to grow more transparent about what they faced, and use it in their writing. He was and is, by the way, also transparent on his Facebook page, and with the New York Times.
For instance, he did a Facebook post that included a photograph of his hand, darkened and discolored by reaction to the medications. You could also see his wedding ring (he and Terry Erickson have been together 40 years) visible. And here is what he wrote about his hand, that brave picture: “The dichotomous color of chemo: curative yet deadly, a color deathly black yet breathing life, a body diseased yet attempting to palpate with life.”
In some ways, I don’t think there’s such a thing as “dying,” other than maybe in the last few minutes of life (but it’s still life, and living). It seems to me you’re alive or dead. You’re living until you die, and then you are dead, not dying.
Raghavan has always palpated with life. He still does.
Who else could write a post, again on Facebook, where he talked about making spanokopita, and having a seizure, side by side? How many people would post pictures referencing both?
“It’s rare for me to visit friends these days so I looked forward to sharing a glass of wine and appetizers with dear friends later that evening,” he wrote on November 21, 2021. “Triangular bundles of phyllo engorged with spinach, feta, dill, and scallions, glistening with brushed Irish butter, rested in the freezer. A sheet pan lined with parchment paper laid on the kitchen’s island counter. I had all intentions of preheating the oven to 375 degrees F at 4 pm. It was only 3:30 and I reclined on the sofa with a quilt covering my lower body, an iPad keeping me occupied with a search game, as I tapped at hidden objects. I had plans to shower as the oven was going to bake the wispy, thin-shelled spanakopitas, sunny brown.
“Plans don’t mean a thing as we can never really control or execute them as intended. For you see, a brain really wields that sway. My eyes fluttered open with groggy confusion as I looked at a wall clock that displayed the time as 4:40 pm. In my state I knew I didn’t have a wall clock at home. Masked faces appeared in my vision and someone asked if I knew where I was. Beeps and hisses gave clue to my whereabouts as it dawned on me that I must be in a hospital.
“With parched throat I whispered ‘Hospital?’, not exactly sure what was happening and how I got there. The attending physician said ‘You are at the county’s emergency room,’ an answer that made no sense to my queried whisper.
“”Do you know how you got here?’ he asked, a question that defied a plausible explanation.’Do you know who the president is? ‘ To which I said “Not that idiot.’ ‘You had a grand mal seizure sir and were brought here by ambulance.’
“Soon Terry appeared in the room as the resident neurologist explained the cause of the seizure. ‘A lesion,’ he announced, ‘in the frontal right lobe, and there is no way to say it, but it is bleeding into the brain. I am sorry,’ he mumbled, ‘but we are waiting for further insight from the attending and the radiologist.’
“I held Terry’s hand in fear, but a strange calmness clouded my emotions, a feeling that perhaps this was it. A paramedic swung by my room as he wheeled another patient by and yelled ‘Hey you must make a mean curry.’ I had a shit-ass smile and said ‘yes, one or two.’
“I assumed he was one of the eight that showed up within 5 minutes of a 911 call, a feat that was impressive, given I live on the 32nd floor of a downtown apartment.
“Dr. Wong came back and said ‘We think it is a calcified lesion and poses no threat,’ offering a momentary relief from the turbulence of his earlier words.
“A week later my neuro-surgeon disagreed with the diagnosis and scheduled surgery to remove the lesion, which was biopsied and proved metastatic. Radiation and chemo ensued, rituals I was all too familiar with. With all my surgeries and being under over the years totaling hours of unconsciousness, this one hour loss of time during the seizure played more havoc with my emotions, since I felt cheated and powerless.
“I did not have the ability to prepare myself for being down and out, a reminder that perhaps this is what dying would feel like. No dings, bells, white light, or beeps, just a peaceful silence.
“Weeks later those spanakopitas provided comfort, a welcome relief from the hospital’s inane meals, a crispy nudge at reminding me about brain power and control.”
Now that is some beautiful, courageous writing. Spanokopita and seizures. Love and fear. Terror and calmness. Life and death. Not one or the other: both.
A very, very crispy nudge.
Now another Fearless Writing™, the one I am inviting you to (or, depending on when you are reading this post, telling you about), is starting.
I am thrilled, moved, amazed, and humbled that Raghavan, who is almost certainly in his last few months now, is jumping in again.
That someone so delightful, well-loved and equally acclaimed in his world, who has so little time left, is choosing to spend part of that time with me and the other members of this Fearless!
This just floors me. And what a privilege for his fellow Fearless student-colleagues and me!
Over and over, people say to me, “I want to take Fearless someday,” or “It’s on my bucket list.”
Raghavan’s actions and choices remind me, and I in turn want to remind you, gently but honestly, that our time here, in the kitchen and at the computer and on this Earth, is limited. Carpe diem is not just a realistic imperative (because, truly, we never know how long we have) but a vibrant invitation. It says: do it now, honey!
As I write these words, we still have two spots left in this Fearless. I sent a version of this post via email to subscribers to Dragonwagon.com, which I rarely do, so you may have already seen some of this this. And class may be sold out by the time you read this. Still.
LATER NOTE: we are now, in fact, sold out. If you are disappointed, plan now to take it next year! (In so far as we can plan anything in this life. ill you still be here? Will I? Will the Internet and Zoom be here? One never knows, and “them’s is the conditions that prevails, as Jimmy Durante is said to have stated.)
But I think this particular Fearless will be extraordinary, not only because it will include Raghavan every time he is feeling healthy enough to join us, but for other reasons, including my own maturation.
I first began developing the Fearless foundations and fundamental percepts a shocking forty years ago, when I was 30 or so. Now, as of this writing, I am 70. As the saying goes, “It’s really weird being the same age as old these old people.”
But, as I said at my 70th birthday party (hosted by the Fayetteville Arkansas Public Library), now “I know why the aged bird sings.” (With thanks and apologies on that one, of course, to the brilliant Maya Angelou, who lived in Arkansas in the early years of her life; in fact the first few chapters of I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings are set in Stamps, Arkansas).
I wish, down to the marrow of my bones, that Raghavan could continue flying, and singing, and becoming an aged bird along with me. And with his beloved Terry! And with the countless people who love and admire him. But oh how honored I am that for now, we’ll be flying and singing together, for however much or little time we have.
Does Fearless Writing™ have your name on it? Check it out here, and see. And for those of you who took it awhile back, or have taken the short Fearless Writing™ Exploration, I urge you to dive into this deeper course with me, if not this time, then another. (LATER NOTE: again, we are sold out for 2023. Further proof of the imperative power of “do it now.”)
Although I used to teach it as a weekend intensive, it turns out that online over a few months is the perfect way to do a Fearless. This is because there’s lots of digestion time between classes, room to experiment with what you learn, build habits, find and develop your voice, and get to know the other class members and follow their journeys as you bushwhack your own.
The course remains true to the principles I first began articulating back in the 80’s, but it has also changed and developed as I have… often through observing the wisdom and growth of my extraordinary writer-students.
As always, I find some take it for the writing, some for the fearlessness. I promise it develops both.
Also as always: I notice that many who take it are at a moment of transition in life.
I know, it’s a big fat time-commitment. On the other hand: twelve almost-but-not-quite consecutive Sunday afternoons; that’s doable, no? Yes!
I know I am not making those seductive but ridiculous and false promises you see all over the internet (“Take my life-changing course and you too can write a New York Times best-seller book in just three weeks!” Oh, puh-lease!). But you’re too smart to fall for that, no? Yes!
And I know it’s a seemingly big price-tag to some, but I set it up so you can name your own payment plan. Some people pay the whole thing at once; others pay me a hundred dollars a month, or more, or less.
If you want to be part of this, do not, and I mean this, do not let money stand in the way. I mean it! This goes not just for Fearless, but for most life-enriching things you want to do but about which you are hesitant.
I’m holding out my hand. Join me. If not this year, hopefully, next year. If it’s next year, you’ll miss being with Raghavan, and the eleven other brave, adventurous, intriguing souls who are part of this 2023 cohort. But, Fearless is fairly self-selecting; it attracts people who 1) have some creativity-or-expression-related fear and 2), at some level are ready to take on working with those fears: working with them in service of growing, and writing, and telling their story.
I find myself, each year, saying, “Wow. That was the best yet.” And somehow, it always is.
“Next year in Jerusalem,” say the Jews (of whom, non-practicing, I am one) in hope, each Passover. I say to some of you, “Next year in Fearless!” There will be a place for you.
But don’t wait for the course to start getting small-f fearless. Do something that scares you today!
Respectfully, and with love for readers, writers, and the craft and practice of writing,