Ear­li­er this week, Elis­sa Alt­man shared how her mem­oir Treyf: My Life as an Unortho­dox Out­law found a recep­tive audi­ence in coastal Maine. Elis­sa is guest blog­ging for the Jew­ish Book Coun­cil all week as part of the Vis­it­ing Scribe series here on The ProsenPeo­ple.

It is the end our end-of-sum­mer vaca­tion in Maine, an annu­al trip that start­ed out as a vaca­tion for our dogs. (This may sound exces­sive to some non-dog-lovers, but Petey and Addie are like our chil­dren, with­out bar mitz­vahs or col­lege tuition.) This year, though, we lost Addie in ear­ly July at almost fif­teen years old, which was a long and good run for a one-hun­dred pound Labrador built more or less like Shel­ley Win­ters in The Posei­don Adven­ture. She was a big girl whose most remark­able fea­ture was not only her swim­ming abil­i­ty, her bot­tom­less appetite, or her love for a stuffed snake called Mil­ton (all of which were con­sid­er­able): the most aston­ish­ing thing about Addie was her inef­fa­ble kind­ness. When we lost her, we were left with her dog sib­ling, Petey, who is known for a lot of things, but nat­ur­al, instinc­tive kind­ness would not be one of them. 

So my wife and I are here in Maine, get­ting to know this small beast as a sep­a­rate enti­ty unto him­self, while miss­ing Addie. He’s so much younger than Addie and has a lot of crazy herd­ing-dog ener­gy, and every day we walk togeth­er for hours on the beach to let him release it. He has nev­er liked water very much — he hates pud­dles and mud and any­thing that he has to clean off — but every day he goes in to the water a lit­tle bit fur­ther, and says hel­lo to more peo­ple, like the man we met one morn­ing who was out pick­ing up the giant clams that get washed up when the tide goes out, before the crowds arrived. Petey ran up to him, pok­ing at the pile of beached clams col­lect­ing at his feet. 

The man stood at the edge of the water, ankle deep in the crash­ing waves oppo­site the Seguin Island light­house, his arms full of shells. He smiled at us, put them down behind him, and picked up as many of the enor­mous qua­hogs he could find. I won­dered silent­ly whether or not he was one of Maine’s many stel­lar chefs who have devot­ed them­selves to the fruits of the state — the pro­duce, the shell­fish, the grains — col­lect­ing for his restau­rant. And then, one by one, he began vig­or­ous­ly hurl­ing the clams back out into the water as far as he could pos­si­bly throw them. 

They’re still alive,” he said to me, and I just hate to see them suf­fer. It seems so unnec­es­sary, so unkind.”

Petey and Susan and I stood in the surf, watch­ing. We wished him a good day, and then kept going. 

The issue of kind­ness — sim­ple, pure kind­ness — is one that has been on my mind a lot recent­ly. With the pub­li­ca­tion of my next mem­oir Treyf: My Life as an Unortho­dox Out­law, I’ve been asked by many reporters and jour­nal­ists about my reli­gion, and how I jus­ti­fy it vis-à-vis the fact of my life as an assim­i­lat­ed Jew who does not now and nev­er has had any for­mal prac­tice. Over and over I have found myself answer­ing that I find reli­gion in the human kind­ness­es and com­pas­sions we show one anoth­er every day. In the cur­rent cli­mate, that is not easy to find — it seems to be elud­ing us, who­ev­er we are, what­ev­er we look like, how­ev­er we vote, and how­ev­er we pray.

As a mem­oirist, I often have to write about dif­fi­cult things that active­ly involve oth­ers, things that per­haps are painful for oth­er peo­ple but also direct­ly involve me or have shaped me and made me the per­son I am. Every time I sit down to write, I ask myself: is this kind? Is this com­pas­sion­ate? Is it fair, or will it hurt someone? 

Some­times I suc­ceed at kind­ness; some­times I fail. And when that hap­pens, I have to ask myself about my moti­va­tion: what’s the pur­pose of writ­ing some­thing that is unkind? Is it nec­es­sary? Is there anoth­er way to tell my sto­ry that will not involve some­one else’s heart? Often there is; often there isn’t. So what is my pol­i­cy, my rule?

No mat­ter what, don’t be cru­el. No mat­ter what, remem­ber com­pas­sion and decen­cy, and remem­ber, as the writer Vivian Gor­nick said, that the lone­li­ness of the mon­ster and the cun­ning of the inno­cent.” We are all of us human. 

We have been walk­ing on the beach with Petey every day we’ve been here: long, ambling strolls in the surf that exhaust him and leave our feet coat­ed with a thick lay­er of brine. I haven’t seen the clam-res­cuer since the first morn­ing we spoke, but every day, I look for him and won­der whether his sav­ing those giant bivalves was for naught — if they got caught in the hands of some­one less thought­ful — or they lived anoth­er day, safe, sur­prised, at peace. 

Elis­sa Alt­man is a food and cook­book edi­tor and the writer behind Poor​Mans​Feast​.com, win­ner of the 2012 James Beard Award for an Indi­vid­ual Food Blog and the foun­da­tion for her pre­vi­ous book, Poor Man’s Feast: A Love Sto­ry of Com­fort, Desire, and the Art of Sim­ple Cook­ing.

Relat­ed Content:

Elis­sa Alt­man writes Poor​Mans​Feast​.com, win­ner of the 2012 James Beard Award for Indi­vid­ual Food Blog. A food and cook­book edi­tor and writer, her work has appeared in Saveur and The New York Times, on Gilt Taste and The Huff­in­g­ton Post, and has twice been select­ed for inclu­sion in Best Food Writ­ing. She lives in Con­necti­cut with Susan Turn­er and a small herd of animals.