Self-preservation is not instinct to me. It is craft. When I make seventy-five pierogi at once it says your sustenance is worth dedicating five hours to. It says here, you don’t have to find strength to cook dinner for the next two weeks. It says you are worth preserving. Even if it is the littlest, most basic, fairly unhealthy way to say those things.
My family’s Polishness sort of wasted away the way my appetite did: not entirely on purpose, a product of pressure and negligence. Like any other white American, I’ve got my European percentages that boil down to “ethnically from New Jersey,” and I recognize that identifying too much with any one of them is completely out of touch with the reality of my heritage. I’m a history nerd, I like tracing our genealogy and knowing the characters and places that made me possible, but I know that the only identities that mean anything to my family are American and Catholic, and this is more than enough.
Still, there’s something in the Poznań-by-way-of-Pennslavania (sorry; obligatory) story that has always echoed in me. For one, growing up in Catholic school toward the end of St. John Paul II’s papacy means if you had a claim to Polishness, you embraced it loudly. Moreover, if you have gone through a Les Misérables phase, you can and will relate Feuilly’s declaration that the partition of Poland is the origin of all injustice, whenever given the opportunity (I like to use this on rude drivers or work drama). But I like the poetry of it, too. Poznań comes from poznać, which is like conocer, “to know” in the sense of “to recognize,” and so the city is simply known town, which I find silly and beautiful and #same. To be known by your knownness, in a region that was occupied and partitioned and self-destructive as much as destroyed, is a declaration of persistence for which I have a great deal of respect. Anyone who has struggled with eating knows this knownness: somewhere beneath all that war is a person that God keeps going.
My friend Gracy Olmstead once wrote (I’d link it, alas I can’t find it, but it has stuck with me for years) that the millennial habit of posting pictures of meals on Instagram is a secular version of saying grace. As someone who almost always forgets to say grace, but has an Instagram feed full of coffees and homemade meals, I can’t help but feel relieved thinking this—though of course I try not to take this shared intention as an excuse. It is thanksgiving, at least for me. I am grateful to have things to eat, and I am grateful to be able to eat them. I am better at this than at the eucharistic thanksgiving, and that is a shame, but these two acts of thanksgiving are not remotely unrelated.
It is not lost on me that the liturgy is a meal. It is difficult to explain in any other language how painful it is to be a Christian with eating issues given this fact. When meals are your particular occasion of sin, your particular battleground for spiritual warfare, your particular source of stress and struggle, it is profoundly sad to realize you’re alienated from what is intended to be your physical and spiritual strength. It is not the end of the story, but it is hard to see past, and it is hard not to blame yourself for this disposition.
Exactly that, disposition, an unnatural fight against creation that simultaneously feels and functions as if it were my very nature. A chaotic thing that I don’t want to name because I don’t want to integrate it as part of my identity, rather than something attacking it. But there it is, three times a day, making itself known. An identity I experience more often than being Polish, that’s for sure.
Except I’m not sure how distant the two experiences are. When I muddle through Polish Duolingo, when I buy extra yogurt knowing I won’t want to come to the grocery store again this week, when I insist on the supremacy of Christmas Eve, when I make dinner plans with friends so I can’t avoid eating, I am saying to myself, we are worth preserving. These small acts of reclamation say, you were created, you are known, and that is craft more than instinct or even inheritance.