I have always done my best thinking in the shower.

Perhaps it is the five years of childhood I spent swimming, throwing myself into frigid water on sixty-degree summer mornings. It could also very well be the years I spent on the boat with my parents, casting lines and catching perch or dangling my feet off the edge of the tiny white plastic platform screwed on next to the motor.

Is it a coincidence that both have ruined my otherwise perfect dental work?

I was seven, kneeling backwards on the boat. “Don’t do that,” my mother chided. “You’re going to get hurt.” But I laughed and ignored her. Just two minutes later, we hit a wave that gave my mouth an up close and personal encounter with the plexiglass edge. Tears were immediate. “Damn it, Amanda. Let me see.” She pulled back my lips, shockingly unwounded, and locked her eyes on my front tooth, one of several that were now permanent teeth. “Yep… it’s chipped.” I cried harder, not for the pain but for the loss I felt in that moment.

It was the moment I realized that unlike my dad’s chili, I wasn’t perfect.

Dad's Chili

No one can beat dad's chili. ^_^

Two years later, I was doing backstroke at a swim meet. I was in the middle of a 100 IM, getting ready to face the breast stroke. All I could think of was how much I hated it because no matter how hard I tried, I was never really frog enough to master it.

The world suddenly went black for a moment.

I must have miscounted my strokes. I had a vague recollection of being in the water, but for three seconds, I couldn’t act. I just sort of hovered there, suspended between the bottom of the pool and the surface. I was supposed to be doing something… what was it?

Oh. Breaststroke.

For my trouble, I got third place in the IM. The white ribbon reminds me of what the pool took from me that day: one tiny fragment of my leftmost eyetooth.

Neither defect is noticeable to the average person’s naked eye. Dentists, on the other hand, love to remind me of my less than perfect mouth and insist on crowning these unnoticeable scars. Each visit yields much the same conversation. “You ought to get those teeth crowned. Other than that and a little bit of crookedness, your mouth is perfect. I wish you’d get braces to straighten out those bottom teeth…”

“Look,” I interrupt. “They aren’t rotting and falling out of my head, and they don’t hurt when I eat, so as far as I’m concerned, they’re fine.”

“Well, then don’t hurt now, but one day, that’s going to cause some serious problems.”

“And one day, when I have the money to pay for cosmetic work, I’ll do something about it. For now, they’re fine.”

I never try to explain that these little defects are part of who I am.

In the middle of one recent shower, I paused in the middle of shampooing my hair as a hazy, vague sort of memory surfaced. It was the end of my Victorian literature class, and I had just waited ten minutes to discuss an assignment with a very in-demand professor. We determined to meet the following Wednesday at 12:30 to discuss it. The recollection was an image of her face, animated but somehow weary, accompanied by the words, “Be sure to send it to me beforehand. That way, our meeting goes quickly.”

It was 11:35 on Tuesday when this fact hit me. After washing the burn of shampoo out of my eyes, I swallowed my grumblings. This memory is sending me downstairs to send an e-mail when all I really want to do is go to bed.

Why not get a bowl of soup while I’m at it? I’m feeling inspired, so I need a little brain food anyway.

This shower yielded one additional worthwhile thought. Just a fistful of minutes before my memory kicked into full throttle and sent me careening off of my routine, I saw the last parallel I ever thought I’d see, and it all began with a question.

How is soup like writing?

I came up with three possibilities in the course of my mental meanderings.

They are both delicious. Given, but relative. I work with a student who loathes academic writing with every fiber of their being but who professes a great love for soup. This common ground somehow gets us through every session without stewing too much.

Good soup and good writing rely on balance. Any cook knows that one extra dash of pepper could spoil the golden equilibrium in a piping hot bowl of soup. As a sole chef, I have to gauge this on a much smaller level than I’ve been doing for the past year and a half because my typical six to eight cups of cooking liquid must be reduced to between three and four. In terms of balance, this poses unique challenges. One potato too many, one chicken finger too many, and what was a good idea in theory quickly becomes a recipe for potential failure that can only be rescued by some last-minute tweaking on my part… as is the case with good writing no matter what the genre. Creative writing is the eight-quart pot, scientific writing the three-quart pan, and literary analysis somewhere between the two. All of them are sustained (and sustain the reader) through balance.

More than all of this, however, I realize that good writing and good soup are good by mere virtue of their perpetual incompleteness. Soup and writing will never be entirely done.

I default to my curry recipe for an example despite the fact that it is not soup.

curry

Look at that delicious bowl of chicken curry goodness!

My parents came home one day from the store to find their house smelling a little like India. “What are you cooking?” my dad asked, dropping a load of grocery bags on the table.

“Curry.”

He looked at the dusting of curry on top of rice and lentils in the pan.

“You know it’s supposed to be a sauce, right?”

“It’s a work in progress,” I responded.

Before attempt number two, several months later, I took a look at a recipe on the internet just to give myself a general idea of what I was doing. My parents were on vacation camping and had left me behind to guard the house and to work my minimum wage job. My success was a private one, celebrated on with a bowl of what at the time I thought must surely be nirvana.

Since that first batch, I have gone back to it again and again. The ingredients change a little every time in proportion and variety because of the same faulty memory that made me forget about sending my professor an e-mail. Then again, how I assemble my curry also depends on what I have in the freezer and what I’m in the mood for. Maybe I want potatoes in it this time. Maybe I just want the good old classic bag of frozen mixed vegetables. Maybe that’s all I have on hand. With a wooden spoon, I write a poem for my tongue in a pan and savor each syllable with a nibble.

My curry recipe will never be complete, and neither will this piece of writing. Like my forefather Walt Whitman, who was by some comedic cosmic twist born exactly 168 years before I was, I will continually fail in my endeavors to finish a draft because it will never be finished. Once this is uploaded, I will probably find some grammatical error and insist on fixing it, or I will find some point where the transition is lacking, much like the spicy zing of my last batch of curry.

Does this mean I am doomed to forever fall short of curry perfection, and does my writing stand to suffer the same fate? I’m a Master’s student. Shouldn’t I have at least touched the realm of near completion by now? When does a draft stop being a draft? Aside from one eccentric, soup-loving graduate student’s desperate attempts to avoid fast food, when does soup stop being a prelude to the main course?

Look at the chips in my teeth. They will give you a suitable answer.

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