Boil and Trouble

Illustration: Eduardo Recife

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"You live, you learn, you burn a few pots. Is that so bad? asks Victoria Redel.

How many saucepans and teapots have I forgotten on the stove over the years? How many burnt kettles have I returned to, finding their plastic handles melted, nightmarishly deformed? I've bought trilling kettles, chirping kettles, kettles that screech. And yet, lost in work or email, I forget about that cup of tea I wanted until an acrid smell returns me to the kitchen. I've instituted systems of punishment: Once, I told myself I wasn't allowed to buy a replacement kettle, then got desperate enough to use a soup pot to heat up water for tea. I let that burn, too.

This weekend I put beets on to boil. I checked once, twice, and then, knowing that beets take a good long time, set out to finish other chores. I folded laundry, which led to cleaning out a chest of drawers, which led to rearranging cluttered closet shelves, and when the phone rang, it was an old friend, and soon my son ran in to tell me that the kitchen was smoky. "Your pot burned again," he said. "Come on, Mom, are you really this hopeless?"

Oh, the sight of those pitiful beets, blackened and stuck to the bottom of that scorched vessel! Oh, the awful sting of shame! Why couldn't I see one thing through? Shouldn't I live in a clear, directed way, honoring each task by allowing it to have its moment?

And yet. Standing at the sink, looking at the burnt layers that flaked off each orb to reveal perfectly cooked red and yellow beets, I was hit with a sudden epiphany: I had committed no crime. Single-minded focus might be a beautiful goal, but sometimes life is so full of things to see and do and look after, and isn't that lucky? Shouldn't that abundance also be embraced? It was such a forgiving notion, a rare moment when I took a break from feeling guilty long enough to see the uselessness of my guilt.

I crumbled goat cheese over the beets, thinking about how a full life insists on chaos, which might occasionally involve a wrecked pot. If, indeed, I was hopeless, I was at least hopefully hopeless: Pots can be cleaned. Life will go on, full of delicious distractions. And there will occasionally come moments that remind you all is well.