So I know this is a bit of a divisive topic but it is not my intention to rant in any way. It’s just that being part of a religious community has played quite a big part in my grieving and how my grieving was received and responded to by those around me, and I want to try to describe that experience. I’m attempting the topic this week because ‘The Cooking’ below (Homemade Spaghetti) was an opportunity I was fortunate enough to have due to being part of this community.
Just to contextualise, I’m Catholic but I’m not particularly religious. I don’t really have any faith as such (though I don’t ponder these issues much) and I don’t attend church regularly. I go sometimes for special events in the Christian calendar, and I do envisage that I will return to church as a more regular attender at some point in my life. I think this because I feel that being part of a church community has given me something almost indescribably special, and I don’t currently see how I could recreate this through other means. I still identify myself as a Catholic because for me this is a cultural indicator, not necessarily an indicator of metaphysical faith. You might agree or disagree. Obviously some people decide that they no longer want to identify as a member of a religious community, and I’m not arguing against that at all. But for me personally, being Catholic is just as immutable a part of my identity as being a woman, or being British. I just am, and whilst my beliefs and views may change I can’t change my cultural background. That’s not how everyone sees it, as I say, but for me that’s how it feels.
I went to a small Catholic primary school which was linked to a Catholic church, where I attended mass every Sunday morning for around 10 years. I probably stopped attending church regularly when I was about 15 years old. But being part of one community for such a long time really ties you to that place and to those people. Being part of a community is different somehow to being part of a group of friends. A community is made up of whole families and you know all these family ties. You’re vaguely aware of what is going on in other people’s lives, even though they may not actually be friends. You share a bond with these people, whatever the specifics of your interaction with them. Being part of a community is like having a huge extended family. I imagine there’s a similar effect when one lives in a small village. When Greg died this community was invaluably helpful to us.
For the first few days following Greg’s death we barely ate. A fresh baguette was bought every day on the basis that we shouldn’t have to eat stale bread in this awful situation, but every evening the untouched loaf was thrown away as we found we had once again been unable to stomach food. At some point a home cooked cottage pie was brought to us by a family friend. Suddenly, our appetite was awoken and we were ravenous. My dad went back for seconds. We could eat again, but we couldn’t cook. We couldn’t face leaving the house – going food shopping was simply unimaginable. Planning a meal seemed such a ridiculously mundane thing to do. It required the ability to think about something other than death, which just wasn’t possible. Standing over a hob required energy we just didn’t have. I spent every day in my pyjamas, curled up in a ball on the sofa, wrapped in my duvet, openly crying or simply staring silently ahead. I couldn’t find the energy to watch TV, let alone cook a meal. At this point a collection of people took it upon themselves to organise a cooking rota for us. Some of the people involved were good friends of my mum, some were less close, and some were people we hardly knew at all. All were people from the church community. For over a month we were brought a home cooked meal every evening. The practical benefit of this was enormous. We could eat, so we were kept physically well at a time when we were emotionally falling apart. Every day we ate something tasty, each meal a little gift for our taste-buds, which brought us a simple sensual pleasure even in the most terrible of times. We spent time in the day thinking about the meal that was to come – meaning that we had something to look forward to and discuss every day. This also gave us the sense, loudly and clearly, that we were being looked after. And that meant an awful lot. Apparently Islam recognises this act of practical kindness as being vital for the bereaved, and formalises it in its religious traditions – banning mourners from cooking for 40 days after a death and requiring friends, family and neighbours to supply food for the stipulated time frame. A good idea, I think. We were lucky our community did this for us without such a tradition being in place in the Catholic Church.
The priest who took my brother’s funeral is the man who was the community priest for the 10 years I attended church. He’s not currently here – he is now living in Ireland. He flew back, however, to hold this ceremony – an offer that he made immediately without being asked. I told him that people had been so helpful; I felt like I was being held. I felt like all manner of chaos was erupting inside me and my very soul was breaking but that there were people around me trying to keep me safe, wrapping me in love and holding me together. ‘That’s what it’s all about,’ he responded, ‘That’s the very point.’
I am aware that not everyone has a community like this around them to support them in such times. But I recommend that you use your life now to build yourself one in whatever way you can. Surround yourself with a collection of people who will look after each other always, because at some point in your life you will need it.
The Cooking – Homemade Spaghetti
This week I had the opportunity to learn how to make pasta. One of the couples from our church community make pasta regularly (she’s Italian) and had invited us over to have a go. For me, the way this wonderful couple have acted towards us in the wake of this tragedy really epitomises the meaning of community. We always knew each other, but we didn’t really socialise outside of church. We certainly weren’t close. This didn’t matter to them. We needed support and they gave it, in so many different ways. Invites for cups of tea, offers of practical help, loans of books, and, most importantly, the opportunity to make pasta!
In some ways this blog post is a bit of a cheat – I had a LOT of help. I really don’t think I’d have any pasta at all if I’d attempted this on my own. Pasta dough is basically flour and egg. 4 oz flour to 1 egg (or 8 to 2, etc.), with a dash of olive oil and a sprinkle of salt. It’s mixed together in a bowl to make a pretty dry dough. Then, once you’ve got a bit of a dough ball, it needs stretching.
The dough goes onto a clean surface. Hold it in place with one hand, and with your other use the ball of your palm to stretch the dough out. Fold the dough over, and stretch it out again. This is actually a really difficult thing to do, and takes quite a long time. ‘Are you strong?’ ‘No. Not really’ I said. ‘No, I can see that!’ was the reply. I hear all manner of injuries have been sustained during this strenuous activity. Thankfully I made it through without breaking any bones, but I did need some help.
Once the dough is deemed elastic enough (does it bounce back when you press it with a finger?) it is ready for the pasta maker. This rolls it thinner and thinner and longer and longer, as the settings of the machine are notched up. I found using the machine strangely difficult at first – it was just quite an alien act to me, so rolling the pasta sheets through it took much longer than anticipated. This meant that all the other pasta pieces began drying up, which then made it harder to get them through the machine. This all became a bit of a race against time, a hurried flurry of activity to try to finish the pasta without it all drying out and cracking up. It wasn’t exactly relaxing. I stepped back for a while and let the experts take over to save our dinner! Apparently this hurry can be side stepped, though, by wrapping the dough in cling film until it is ready to be rolled – this will protect it from the air for longer, and give you more time to play with.
Once the pasta is the right thickness it’s rolled through a different attachment (on the same machine) which cuts it into spaghetti strips. It’s then hung (in this case over cupboard doors) until it is dry enough to be used in cooking. Apparently once the spaghetti starts curling this indicates it is dry.
We ate the spaghetti with a simple tomato sauce and Parmesan, which was all it needed. It was absolutely delicious (which I can take little credit for). The texture of the spaghetti was springy, you could feel the elasticity. I’m not sure how to describe the taste except to say that it had one – a very nice one, which meant instead of the spaghetti being used to bulk out a tasty sauce it was the sauce that supported the tasty spaghetti. Taster quote ‘It was just gorgeous’. A completely different experience to eating dried pasta, and something I would definitely do again, given the time! I probably won’t be buying a pasta maker anytime soon though…