From Cats to Poetry to Existence—Gratitude

It’s time for the annual gratitude edition of this blog, which begins with a big Thank You to all who read it. Here we go!

Warm things: clothes fresh out of the dryer, cookies fresh out of the over, tea, the moment of stepping out of a blustery or snowy day into a heated house.

Existing: The odds against it are—according to diligent internet research—1 in 102,685,000, and that’s just the human genetics bit, which doesn’t include the messiness of whether atoms would form at all, much less life.

Eating together: the way sharing a meal builds connective tissue between people, whether we know each other when we sit down or not.

Cooking: chopping vegetables, watching onions fry, the smell of baking bread—maybe I just really like food.

Farmers and ranchers: without whom the previous two items would be highly problematic.

Tranquility, serenity, peace, and joy, as Mark Nepo defines them in this quote I recently happened upon: “After all these years, I’m beginning to see that tranquility is the depth of being that holds what we think and feel, not the still point after we’ve silenced what we think and feel. Serenity is the depth of being that holds difficulty, not the resting point after we’ve ended difficulty. And peace is the depth of being that holds suffering and doubt, not the raft we climb on to avoid suffering and doubt. This leads us to joy, which is much deeper and larger than any one feeling.”

Poetry, because a poem can both break your heart and break it open and because something about forming one helps people recognize their own voice, even those whose voices are largely ignored.

The spectacular sycamore tree on the road into campus who has conspired with the morning sun to become a burst of yellowness this time of year.

Whatever it is about cats that makes us think it’s funny when they destroy things and gives us a “get out of required duties free” card when they’re on our laps.

People who work in industries that don’t stop during the holidays: ER nurses, doctors, and staff; garbage collectors; police officers; moms and dads; restaurant workers; EMTs; snowplow operators, and many more.

Family and friends: the true building blocks of life.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

The Terror of Now

Not all learning by experience is pleasant. Like when your mom tells you that the melted, unsweetened chocolate that smells fantastic doesn’t taste good and you don’t believe her and so she tells you to try it. And then you believe.

After a few such incidents, we realize that we can learn from others’ experiences, and we don’t actually have to eat a large piece of horseradish root to accept that it’s kind of hot. OK, some of us do.

Taking others’ word for it is not quite the same, though. There are plenty of things we accept but won’t truly understand until we experience them, everything from just how scary the wicked queen in Snow White is to the level of sleep deprivation an infant subjects her parents to.

Many people—including most recently for me Richard Rohr—have said that we spend most of our days living in the future or the past because our small self, or ego self, is terrified of the present. The current moment is always beyond the ego’s control, and it doesn’t much like that. The people saying this are smart and deeply spiritual, so I have been happy to believe them. I could certainly verify that I spent little time in the here and now.

Then, for a few weeks, I focused on bringing myself back to the present as often as possible, which consisted of a lot of bringing back and not a lot of staying. Even so, my ego freaked out, as if the wicked queen/hag were standing directly in front of me with an irresistibly red apple.

Terror is not difficult to recognize, and when it shows up while doing the dishes or cooking breakfast—in my kitchen, absent saber-tooth tigers—ego protection seems a pretty reasonable explanation. It’s fascinating to watch when I can remember to watch it and not run away immediately.

It’s even interesting to watch myself run away, which I’ve done for the last week or two, under the guise of needing to get things done. Now that I can recognize the running away, though, I can at least choose whether I have the oomph at any given moment to confront my ego fear. And maybe, when all is said and done, that fear is really no more threatening than unsweetened chocolate.

Comfort Food

I don’t know about you, but I needed a Julie Andrews moment today:

Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens
Bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens
Brown paper packages tied up with strings
These are a few of my favorite things.

I know we had a moment a few weeks back with the apple strudel, but today I was thinking about comfort; we turn to these very concrete things when we need comforting. Personally I go for hot chocolate or homemade macaroni and cheese.

This is what baby blankets and favorite sweatshirts are all about. It is why we get on airplanes we will complain about later and travel thousands of miles to visit friends and family. It is the magic that printed books and hand-written letters still hold. It is the reason my purring cat was not immediately booted off my lap when he started to bat at me while I typed.

I don’t know anyone who, when the world is weighing heavily, prefers a philosophy book to a cup of tea with a friend. I hope even those who have known suffering and grief I can’t imagine or understand can touch things that comfort them.

And yet my relationship to the physical is often one of obligation or control. I tell myself, sternly, to eat four servings of vegetables a day (rarely happens) or to water the plants so I don’t feel guilty about killing them. It would be so much more life-giving—to me and the plants—to spend a little time admiring how beautiful they are or to be aware for a few breaths that I am so connected to them that I am breathing in what they recently breathed out.

My most joyful moments arise when I am physically present with other people or with nature, so why not trust that? Please pass the brownies.

Feeding Each Other

To channel some combination of Julia Childs and Emily Post: there may be no better way to celebrate resurrection morn than by dining on that most splendid of nature’s creations, the egg, in all its wondrous varieties—quiched, deviled, etc.—while enjoying the companionship of good friends. Which is what happened at my house on Easter.

What made this brunch so delightful is that my friends—and mom—are awesome. First of all, they cook well and they enjoy eating good food. Yes, that really comes first. Second of all, they laugh a lot and don’t mind being silly. Though no small children attended, the tallest, least furry bunny I’ve ever met brought a basket full of eggs and put together an Easter egg hunt for the rest of us.

Third of all, they are smart and welcoming and loving. This particular group had never gathered before, and only a few people knew each other. I suspect that anyone who heard the laughter or observed the general good cheer would have concluded that these people had known each other for a long time. One friend was talking about a benefit bike ride that he was preparing for, and everyone immediately volunteered to contribute even though they’d only met him a couple of hours before.

As one story tells it, heaven and hell at first appear exactly the same: rows of long tables laden with food and lined with people sitting at the feast. The people hold long-handled spoons. The handles are so long you can’t get the spoon to your mouth. In hell, everyone is miserable because they can’t eat. In heaven, everyone is feeding each other.

I think that’s what happened this Easter—we fed each other good food, good conversation and good humor and were willing to be fed by others. Resurrection might be as simple as that.

Here’s a poem by William Stafford about our daily chance for resurrection. I’ve posted it before, but it’s the perfect size for Poem in Your Pocket Day on Thursday, April 24. Stick this in your pocket and hand it out or read it to people. Guerilla poetry!

By William Stafford

It could happen any time, tornado,
earthquake, Armageddon. It could happen.
Or sunshine, love, salvation.

It could, you know. That’s why we wake
and look out—no guarantees
in this life.

But some bonuses, like morning,
like right now, like noon,
like evening.

The Size of Small Things

My friend Anne wrote a book called A Friend That I Can Do For, and I was lucky enough to be in Chicago on the day of her book signing. The event taught me a thing or two.

Anne interviewed people who gather on Tuesday nights at a food pantry sponsored by All Saints’ Episcopal church in Chicago. Some come to volunteer, some come for a hot meal, and all come for a bit more—community, friendship, a surprisingly unmasked being with each other. The book tells people’s stories in their own words and has no sections, so the story of the pastor is mixed in with that of the man who sleeps in the park and knows a cop who brings him sandwiches and hot soup around 1 a.m. Whether people initially come to the pantry to serve or to be fed, it becomes clear after only a few pages that giving and receiving happen in equal measure regardless of economic status. There is a real humility on both sides that helps break down that need we all have to categorize.

The book signing directly followed the first service on Sunday, and all the profits went to the food pantry. On the way to church, Anne had wondered how the book would be received and whether anyone would buy it. As her husband and I stood in the church hall watching the line form, we kept revising our estimates as to what percentage of the congregation was buying a book. Our final estimate was nearly 100 percent. Of the 100 copies Anne brought, she might have had fifteen left, and there was still another service that morning.

A Friend That I Can Do For will probably never hit the New York Times bestseller list, but its importance to this small community outweighs, for them, that of any John Grisham or Harry Potter novel. I have a tendency to think that the things I do don’t count because they’re not big enough, not grand enough. This small book sticks its tongue out at that attitude and says, “Get a grip! Look what I did. I fed people.”

As the inscription in the book says, may we all be fed.

Note: The book also features striking photographic portraits by Charlie Simokaitis and will be available soon on Amazon.

In Praise of Leftovers

Last week I enjoyed a large bounty of one of those simple wonders of modern living: leftovers. They are often unappreciated and sometimes even maligned, but I think whoever invented leftovers was brilliant.

Maybe leftovers got a bad rap back in the day when humans were killing wooly mammoths and the tribe ate the same meal for months at a time. That whole lack of refrigeration problem meant that each day the remaining mammoth meat tasted a little worse or else you had to go through the effort of drying and salting and, let’s be honest, it was a bit tough after that.

But now, leftovers are brilliant. Here are just a few good things about them.

Thing #1: You don’t have to cook. Or dry and salt. I like to cook, but I also like not cooking every day. It’s a treat to have a little extra time to accomplish something worthwhile, like checking Facebook.

Thing #2: You don’t have to figure out what to cook.

Thing #3: Leftovers are kind of like loaves and fishes. If you put some into a separate Tupperware, you suddenly have a whole other meal called lunch.

Thing #4: They taste good—usually.

Thing #5: They are free. OK, not really, but they are already paid for as opposed to almost any other option available on nights when you don’t want to cook.

Thing #6: You don’t have to cook. Did I mention this already?

Thing #7: You can freeze them and then you don’t have to cook some other day. You can even freeze them in individual containers and eat them now and again rather than five days in a row. Or so I hear. I have never been organized enough to take advantage of this particular benefit.

Reading this list might lead you to believe that the essence of what makes leftovers fabulous is that you can be lazy. That might be true. Let’s make it Thing #8.

I just asked my cat if he would like to curl up in my lap and act inspirational while I write. He replied by knocking my pen off the table.

cat in Santa costume looking sour

That’s the great thing about being a cat: you somehow manage to be charming by failing to fulfill any social obligations. Humans do not have this luxury, especially during the current extreme sports season of gathering and gifting. Everyone is competing in at least a heptathlon—sending cards, buying presents, attending parties, caroling, baking.

I’ve found that the key to an enjoyable holiday season is focusing on the aspects that you’re really good at. For me, one shining skill stands out above all the others: eating.

In these health conscious days, where would all the cookie bakers be without people like me to consume their wares? Who would support the red and green sprinkle industry and ensure the Red No. 5 factories stayed open?

And imagine a holiday party at which no one touched the spinach dip. Don’t linger on that thought lest you lose your good cheer.

In fact, an expert eater may be the person most likely to go the distance. Consider: the season starts with the biggest feast day of the year, Thanksgiving, the one day of the American calendar devoted solely to cooking and eating. Then as soon as you’ve finished the leftovers, the first party arrives. Hanukkah gelt fills in any momentary gaps, and even the decorations are edible—gingerbread houses, candy canes.

So though my Christmas cards remain scanty and my shopping last minute, I think I’m sitting right at the heart of the season.

What We Need

You have everything you need was the theme of our church retreat this week. Apparently it’s going to take me more than one day to master that concept.

To find out how truly bad you are at knowing what you need, go to a buffet. I went to two very good ones in one fabulous day this week.

In case you’ve forgotten, at a buffet, all the food is infinitely replenished. You cannot run out. The person in front of you cannot take the last piece of Tandoori chicken because the kitchen will bring more. Because it is a buffet.

Is my reaction to this state of abundance relief, peace, and contentment? Do I think, wow, there is more food here than I and everyone else in the room could ever eat in one sitting, what a wonderful, relaxing, rare, and magical situation in which to find myself?

If you guessed that the answer to the above questions is yes, thank you. You must be new to reading the blog. Alas, you are also mistaken.

My first instinct is to load up my plate to ensure that I get my fair share. I worry that I won’t get enough when too much is guaranteed. I avoid painful overeating only by holding myself strictly in check, like Dr. Strangelove fighting down his arm as it tries to salute. (If you haven’t seen Dr. Strangelove, you’re leading a deprived life. You can find out how deprived by watching this clip.)

So my judgment of what I need may be a tiny bit off, say three or four stomach’s worth. I might try remembering the buffet problem when my mind is working to convince me I can’t live without the latest whizbang whoozewutsit.

Of course if it’s a chocolate whoozewutsit, bring on the buffet.

Life is Good

‘Tis the season to remember everything that makes this life fabulous. My gratitude list for 2012—partial of course:

Colors, all types, from Rothko’s squares to that electric turquoise fashionable in purses a season or two back to the jacaranda tree’s purple flowers.

The days Elm St. is inexplicably empty allowing me to catch the van despite the the space-time continuum’s attempts to thwart me.

The way that people’s creativity flourishes in different mediums—paint, clothing, conversation, leadership, gardens.

The rotations of nature, from seasonal changes to a single day’s palette of light, morning’s yellow, speaking of promise, distinct from evening’s paler shade of repose.

Food—that it exists, that we are required to eat it, that one of its subcategories is chocolate, that said subcategory correlates with production of Nobel Prize winners. I am not making this up. Read the article on chocolate and Nobel Prizes. Thanks to my aunt for passing on this essential knowledge.

The times I remember to pray instead of attempting to solve something far beyond my powers.

Quirky things—people, movies, my cat, possibly all cats.

The astonishing difference a smile can make in someone’s day.

The times I remember to have a sense of humor about myself.

People—the ones who are passionate; the ones who do jobs I never could, such as home healthcare worker or probation officer; the ones who are incalculably kind; the ones who love me and tell me I’m doing a wonderful job of being human on those days I can’t find that belief anywhere in my universe.

The stunning abundance of all these things in the lives of so many. Here’s hoping that this time next year, those who lack food or love or the chance to express their creativity are sharing in the abundance.

Simple Is Good

The great thing about French is that it makes even the most ordinary things sound fancy. I cooked ratatouille for the first time tonight and discovered that it is not at all fancy.

I think ratatouille must once have meant, “I’m tired from screaming at the kids and milking the goat and cleaning the house all day. I don’t know what to make for dinner, so I’m going to roast whatever vegetables are ready to pick with some olive oil, garlic, and, hm, the rosemary bush needs trimming so I’ll throw in a couple branches.”

To make this dish, you cut vegetables in big pieces, toss them in some olive oil and salt, throw the pan in the oven, and end up with a rather delicious dinner (at least if you follow the recipe in the wonderful cookbook Cook This Now by Melissa Clark). Not delicious in the “my mouth is turning somersaults trying to figure out what this unique flavor combination is” but delicious in its simplicity.

Simple things bring us back to ourselves, snatch us off our hamster wheel of thoughts about past mistakes and future pressures and say to us, “Here, try putting your feet on the ground. It is a little easier that way.” Some people may feel most relaxed wearing an evening gown and dining on duck a l’orange, but I suspect for most of us it’s macaroni and cheese and our favorite sweats.

Our daily lives demand a lot of being on—on top of things, on the ball, on target. Stews, soups, and sweatpants, on the other hand, offer comfort without demanding a lot of skill or attention. You don’t have to impress the chicken and dumplings; they love you already. And your chicken and dumplings don’t have to impress whoever’s eating them; those people already love chicken and dumplings.

After dinner, the cat curled up in my lap, and we lounged until a moth appeared who needed to be chased. I think the Quakers had it right: ‘tis a gift to be simple.