“Oysters” by Seamus Heaney

by Cara Nicoletti on March 10, 2015

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I’ve always been a nostalgic person—which is really just a much nicer way to say that I’m absolutely horrible with change. When I was in high school my grandparents changed the wallpaper in their kitchen from a brown and orange floral pattern to the same floral pattern in shades of gray, and I cried for a week (this is an exaggeration, of course, but not a huge one). Fear and avoidance of change has dictated the decisions I’ve made for most of my life. Certainly it has played an enormous role in where I am at this very moment—poised on the precipice of a sea change brought on by years and years of changing nothing. Isn’t that a lovely term? A sea change. If you happen to be afraid of change and terrified of the deep ocean like me, though, it’s not quite so lovely.

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I’ve been a lot of things in my life, I’ve worked very hard, but I have never ever been brave. I mean that. Toughness and bravery are two very different things—I can say for sure that I am tough, but I am not brave. My only bravery is my willingness to tell you all that I’m afraid of this next chapter, that I’m up most nights afraid, and that I’m tired to my bones of being afraid.

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When I was a kid and the clock struck midnight and New Year’s Eve turned into New Year’s Day, my sisters and I would run around touching things and eating things and making faces, declaring it the first time we’d done it that year! For me it was twofold, because my birthday falls on New Year’s Day—here is the first time I listen to this song or drink this drink or do this particular dance move as a ___ year-old. I still do it to this day, in my head at least, I’m sure a lot of you do the same. Lately I’ve been doing an opposite kind of meditation—here is the last time I make this walk, the last time my face is hovering over this particular vat of steaming chicken livers, the last time that one customer insists on telling me how tired I look and when I look in the mirror later I think “this is just my face,” before thinking that it doesn’t look quite like I remembered it to.

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Two things keep running through my brain during this meditation, like a song that gets stuck in your head during a break-up. One is Joan Didion’s assertion that “it is distinctly possible to stay too long at the Fair.” It repeats over and over again in my brain while I’m drinking in that regular bar or trying to scrub that same corner of my kitchen that never ever gets clean.

Clips from Seamus Heaney’s poem “Oysters” have been running on a loop in my head, too–I think it was the thought of sea changes that put the poem in there. It’s a gorgeous poem, one of my favorites, have you read it?

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Our shells clacked on the plates.
My tongue was a filling estuary,
My palate hung with starlight:
As I tasted the salty Pleiades
Orion dipped his foot into the water.
Alive and violated
They lay on their beds of ice:
Bivalves: the split bulb
And philandering sigh of ocean.
Millions of them ripped and shucked and scattered.
We had driven to the coast
Through flowers and limestone
And there we were, toasting friendship,
Laying down a perfect memory
In the cool thatch and crockery.
Over the Alps, packed deep in hay and snow,
The Romans hauled their oysters south to Rome:
I saw damp panniers disgorge
The frond-lipped, brine-stung
Glut of privilege
And was angry that my trust could not repose
In the clear light, like poetry or freedom
Leaning in from the sea. I ate the day
Deliberately, that its tang
Might quicken me all into verb, pure verb.

It’s those last words that gut me, and that have been rolling around and around lately—“I ate the day//Deliberately, that its tang//Might quicken me into verb, pure verb.” It’s a call for bravery, for action rather than thought, for a sea change.

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Beet-Pickled Onions:
Ingredients:
1 small beet, scrubbed
¼ cup cider vinegar
¼ cup water
1 clove garlic, peeled and smashed
¾ teaspoons sugar
½ teaspoon whole black peppercorns
1 ¼ teaspoons kosher salt
½ a small red onion, cut into thin strips
2 dill sprigs

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Directions:
Preheat oven to 450F. Wrap scrubbed beet in tinfoil and roast until fork-tender—about 40 mins.
Once the beet is tender, let it cool slightly. When it’s cool enough to hold but still warm, peel the outer skin off by rubbing it with a clean towel. Quarter the beet, set it aside.
In a medium saucepan, add your cider vinegar, water, garlic, sugar, black pepper and salt. Bring the brine to a boil, whisking occasionally to make sure sugar dissolves. Allow brine to cool 15 minutes.
In a sterilized pint jar, layer onions, dill sprigs, and beets. Fill jar with warm brine and let it sit, uncovered, for two hours. After two hours, cover and refrigerate until completely cooled. Shuck oysters and top with pickled onion and a splash of the pickle brine. Top with microgreens if you’re feeling aspirational.

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Leave a Comment

Ms. Moon March 10, 2015 at 5:25 pm

Besides the delicious-sounding recipe and the beautiful poem, you have given me something to think about- being tough but not brave.
I think I am that way too.
Thank you for the insight.

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Mary Ann Barton March 10, 2015 at 5:30 pm

Ah yes, aspirational pickles and poetry. Always these two, paired together on the kitchen table, under the glow of remembered wallpaper.

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Deb March 10, 2015 at 6:32 pm

When you were 7 you were afraid of Fenway Park. Just the idea of it! Dad had tickets to take you to a game and you worried yourself sick in anticipation. When game day finally arrived Dad had to pry your your fingers from holding onto the kitchen counter and carry you out of the house kicking and screaming. Even my hand wringing and deep sighs wouldn’t dissuade Dad from having to prove to you that there was nothing to fear. That night you came home a changed little girl and I think it was because you felt brave. From then on you were a devoted Red Sox fan with a true love of the Park they call home. So I for one am not going to worry about you kicking and screaming your way into whatever new chapter calls you because I know whatever you do and wherever you go you will emerge feeling whole, happy, inspired and of course, brave.

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Helen March 12, 2015 at 6:45 pm

and be sure we’ll aid the journey. Nothing to fear but adventure xx

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Perry March 10, 2015 at 8:05 pm

Thank you Cara- for your beautiful writing. I am sitting here in tears over your honesty and bravery- whatever the next chapter brings you are a brilliant writer. I’ve loved reading your blog over the years and I can’t wait to hear of your new adventures. Best of luck -perry from Canada

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Adrianna March 10, 2015 at 8:45 pm

Umm…your mom’s comment made me cry.

I know this feeling all too well. I feel like at least once a month I wake up and say to myself, “What the f am I doing with my life?” As the wise Drizzy rhymes, “had these visions of the life I’m living since I was jimmy/all I had to do was go and get it” Taking those first few steps to go out and get what you want is so hard. So much bravery needed.

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Cara Nicoletti March 10, 2015 at 9:06 pm

I’ve been listening to “now & forever” on repeat as my pump-up song, going to put star67 on heavier rotation after this comment. xo

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Jessica March 24, 2015 at 11:09 am

Ditto me too the crying. I don’t even like oysters OR the Red Sox.

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Elizabeth Aquino March 11, 2015 at 3:18 am

My heart surges at every one of your posts, and this one in particular. I love Heaney — his poems have shaped me as a person and writer for many years. I love how you wove “Oysters” into your cooking and eating and deep musings. The expression “sea change” — did you know he writes of one in a very long poem/play called “The Cure at Troy?” The lines go like this and have informed me as I write about my daughter. I think they’ll resonate with you as you struggle with bravery (you are! you can!) and change:

History says, “Don’t hope
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
of Justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme.

So hope for a great sea-change
On the far side of revenge.
Believe that a further shore
Is reachable from here
Believe in miracles
And cures and healing wells.

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Lise Anne March 11, 2015 at 10:22 am

Your story of the wallpaper in your grandmother’s kitchen reminded me, at first of my nephew who would not try on new coats as a toddler because he only wanted his old coat and they years later had a strong emotional reaction to the family mini van breaking down irrevocably. He said there were so many memories in that van. He didn’t want to loose the memories.
I lost my mother to cancer in January. When we were together at the doctor’s office and they told us there were no more options to fight the cancer and we were referred to hospice care, I told her , “We’ll be brave, Mom.” Brave being a whole now concept of reality for me. A word that previously, I had thought I understood.
Now I find solace in knowing that I can come out of an experience that is scary and sad, a life change, and still feel that I grew. I feel a new vibration of life. A strength that I plan on bringing with me to find the strength to leave the fair behind, once I am done with it. In my own time. Because that is the only way it can work. So to you dear writer of this blog of beauty, I wish you well. Trust in your own time. Thank you.

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Loryn March 12, 2015 at 8:54 pm

Not sure what you’re up to–but I wish you the very, very best. I must say that when you visited us, my students and i found you to be so, so brave (And lovely. And brilliant. And wonderful.) . You really inspired us–and I know it took some really bitchin’ bravery to come back to high school :) Best to you! Xo

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Gwendolyn S April 15, 2015 at 8:08 pm

What lovely, lovely thoughts. Thank you for sharing something that will help me navigate each day, post-recovery from a ten-year illness. It’s a scary world out there. “Oysters” is one of my favorite poems and I found your website searching for that poem online. Thanks again.

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Heather Wischmann July 29, 2015 at 12:08 pm

These oysters look sort of epic. I’ve just discovered your site and will certainly be back. :-)

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Cynthia Grant September 6, 2015 at 7:02 pm

I have an excellent source for oysters here in Nova Scotia…remember to only buy them in a month with an”R”…if the water is too warm, they are not good… and if anyone ventures to Toronto, Rodneys has the best ones!! Very fun restaurant….can’t wait to try the pickled beet onions!!

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Hilary September 7, 2015 at 6:46 pm

Cara, as I’ve just finished your book – my new favourite thing – I thought I’d check out the blog that inspired it. Moments after I land here, I read the familiar lines of a poet from my small part of the world, and your words on bravery and change, & I am reminded that the joy I find in literature is that it slices through 3000+ miles and differing cultures & upbringings and salves the panic inside by showing that other people have experienced the same fears & troubles. I’m also facing a major sea-change – perhaps it comes from being 29 – and it scares the crap out of me. Thanks for writing this. Here’s to quickening into verb.

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