I Cook the Way I Choreograph

Diana Tokaji


When I start a page, I know the hills, I know the landing. Do I plan the trip? I never plan the trip.

Stupid? Perhaps.

Stubborn? Quite.                                                                                  

Not the stubborn, though, that’s guy stubborn – “Don’t ever ask for directions” – but the stubborn wonder of the curious, the want to see it happen from within me onto the page.

This stubborn wonder is the same curiosity that makes me watch my hair turn grey. I could color it and look perky, but I would never know how it had turned – with a white stripe down the left side like a tilted skunk. I am with the curious who want to see the nurse’s hand as she administers the shot, who want to know exactly how the body ages, who want to watch the writing fall through all that is disorganized in nature to the beauty of a tufted landing. I am the child under the blanket, making farts and smelling them.

This is how I choreograph.

Not knowing.

Wonder-filled and hope-less.

I ask myself questions. I assign myself practices. I open doors and shut them – I try to fulfill with my body what my mind pictures, and find it impossible. Not only because I’m 55, but because 95% of what I picture, I was never physically able to do, even when I was 20.

But the doors I’m forced to close push whatever is wanting representation, up through the compact rough like a prairie dog pop-up; and another and another. Are prairie dogs daunted digging hole to hole? They burrow, build mounds to ventilate their tunnel, then pop up as if to pronounce with buoyant, air-filled chests and teeny trumpets: Da da-da! We found our way uncharted.

This is how I choreograph, knowing nothing, and still knowing in the oddest way, the oldest way, that a point of arrival waits patiently. And when I settle, when I finish and land, I look at the rugged hills and know, in retrospect only, the route I took to get there.


My sixth grader’s English teacher gave them a weekend assignment: write a poem built on a topic statement supported by a metaphor. It loomed. The child didn’t want to touch it, like entering a dank tunnel – where’s sky? I was scared. As resident poet I was obliged to help, but I can’t structure a poem. The Xerox he brought home with its bubbles, prongs and topic squares resembled a Sputnik space probe, and metaphor was a central hub. Metaphor? Simile? Thank God, during an aggressive ping-pong volley with a friend, my son and his midwife-pal birthed a metaphor: Hope is to peace as a pole is to fishing. We were one bubble free.

But Ms. Taylor’s Sputnik structure was complicated, and this single balmy day in February passed in the dark study with only one bubble full. My son’s slumped form matched my shame-filled ineptness, and as he demanded I give him the magic key to unlock his poem, we devolved into a shouting match, a war of frustration, the two of us stuck in the airless tunnel – lost, breathless, and (aptly,) without hope. Well, of course no song came, but rather a gruff warble that produced three lines. And the sense that neither of us could write poetry.

Guidelines and assignments can be so helpful. I’m envious of my neighbor Dori, who can follow a recipe – her food is delicious. “I have to use a recipe,” she says. And note: her kids are wonderful and follow rules; her bills are paid.

Give me a recipe and I will digress before Step 2, replacing this with that like a rebellious child. If I am missing tomatoes, for example, I will sooner grow some from seed than run to the store. I have never run to the store for a missing ingredient, but I have substituted many a strange fruit for a normal vegetable. This is good; I can get out of a jam – a missing ingredient is just unmovable earth pressing me to dig in a fresh direction.

But I cannot follow a recipe. It’s a reflex; I flinch when a list is presented to me with you must do this This Way. And yes,

 (quiet to tell you this now)

(and a heart lying on its side, wishing it weren’t true)

this does not parent well. Not only because when the child or the teen asks me how to make my salad dressing (seasoned rice vinegar, the secret), or my healing soup (butternut squash, sweet potato, carrots, celery, apple, onion, orange, white potato, zucchini, cayenne, and tons of ginger root), I cannot explain it in a linear fashion. But because, just like I don’t follow a recipe when I cook, I follow no rubric for parenting. That, I sadly guarantee you, is often not the best recipe for raising children right.

I know how to make my soup creation like the prairie dog knows to arrive from the hole. But my exact steps? I could possibly chronicle them, but with an effort I can only describe as unnaturally painful. To make my soup, I feel my way. (I dig.) I pause, listen. (I dig.) I back away from the vegetables, eye them, sense them, select and chop – I reverse down the hole a bit, pause, dash back, add what it needs. I actively l-o-v-e the ingredients. I do not cook unless I love.

A decade later, editing this, I sigh, relieved that my boys, now men, are great cooks.


When I went back to college at San Francisco State, major in Creative Writing, I auditioned my poetry for a semester of private tutorial with Stan Rice, the Department Chair. I was selected.

“One thing you should know about me,” I told Stan, “I have no idea how to write a poem, and I know nothing about poets.” Months later, it became clear that Professor Rice had never believed me.

“This poem you’ve given me here, is in a style reminiscent of Dickinson,” he said during one of our tutorial meetings. “And this prose poem reflects your intimate knowledge of Ginsburg’s “Howl.” 

I shook my head gently, “No.” An exchange transpired – of disbelief (his) and acceptance (mine). How had I arrived at this refined university department if I knew nothing of the poets? Is it possible that poetry happens if we listen for the words, then love and urge them into form?

But look here. Last week, a week when I was actively praying for miracle money, I found that by accident, by big mistake, my husband and I had saved $5,000. We’d meant to transfer funds so our mortgage would be covered, but transferred erroneously to a dormant account as well as the mortgage account, wondering all the while why we were even more broke than usual. Over the course of a year, we who never manage to save, had saved thousands of dollars. The following week, our old car went belly up, so we needed it.

Tumbled and sloppy and filled with hope like a pole is to fishing, we landed on a strip of level terrain and looked to the brambly hill with wonder.

We were rich. Ish. There was no good sense to it.

I save like I cook like I choreograph like I write. Randomly. Naively. Willingly. Furiously. Hopefully. Foolishly. Trustingly.


William KenowerComment