Make It Beautiful [on Merely A Thought Monday]

The media center was in the basement of the library. I left behind the bright New Mexico sun each day as I descended the stairs to my work-study assignment. In the days of cut-and-paste layout, 5 years before I touched a computer, part of my duties included readying the weekly campus newsletter. X-acto knives, glue sticks, blue non-photo pencils, liner tape were the tools of my day. I loved my work-study, not because of the work, it required hyper-attention to detail and ask anyone, I am not a detail-guy, but I knew my life was being changed under the careful tutoring of my boss, Brother Bill. His instruction had little to do with media and everything to do with orienting to life.

Each day at 3:00, Brother Bill would push a cart into the workroom laden with fresh strawberries or cookies and a pot of tea. “Tea time!” he’d announce and we’d stop work. We’d enjoy a cup of tea together.

It wasn’t the tea or the break in the day or even the laughter and enjoyment of each other’s company. Brother Bill was teaching us to make an event of the ordinary moments of our lives. To attend to the quiet beauty available in the details. Presentation mattered. The plates we used for our snack mattered. How we oriented ourselves to each other mattered. It wasn’t the grand gestures but the attention to the daily routines that transformed a life.

Occasionally he took his work-study students to dinner. Always to a fine restaurant so we might have the experience of – an experience of dining. Linens and wine pairing. Food to savor instead of snarf down. Lingering over coffee with laughter and conversation. Being no where else. Taste the moment. It was his single lesson, offered without instruction but by simple demonstration. Feel the sun. Take the time to fully fill out the experience. Fully attend to your moments and your attention will fully fulfill you.

Kerri and I end our work day with happy hour. A glass of wine and crackers and cheese, maybe a pear. Tapenade. One evening we realized that we had a cupboard full of beautiful plates and trays. “Why aren’t we using these for happy hour?” we asked. “What are we saving them for?”

I heard the voice of Brother Bill, “Make it beautiful,” he said. “It matters.”

read Kerri’s blog post about BEAUTIFUL PLATES

Taste And Adjust [on Merely A Thought Monday]

In our kitchen, I am the sous chef. Second in command. I chop, slice and dice. Then, I place my colorful preparations in glass bowls, carefully arranged relative to the stove so the chef need only reach to add an ingredient to her magic-making. “What’s first?” I ask. “Onions and garlic,” the chef replies, tying on her apron. I know the answer before I ask but it’s our ritual signal, like the kitchen version of “On your mark,” to the runners at the starting line. The onion steps onto the cutting board.

We love to cook together. I have learned through the many phases of my life that my relationship with food mirrors the relationship I have with life. If I attend to the the palette of tastes and textures that I eat, if I take the time to savor and appreciate my food, I carry that attention into every moment of my day. If I rush through and jam any food-like-object into my mouth, I carry that same inattention into my life. Appreciation, savoring, is mindfulness. Slowing down to plan and fully fill the palette of flavor fosters anticipation. Moving through a grocery store or farmer’s market is a wholly different affair when favorite recipes call.

I did not arrive easily at my understanding of food and life. The first recipes I tried were utter disasters. Don’t ask BK about my inaugural batch of lentil soup. It will send him into waves of horror-laughter. I ate it to prove that my cooking was not so bad but could not hide that my soup nearly killed me. And, I remember the moment that I decided to learn to cook. I remember like it was yesterday the understanding that sent me to the stove: I wanted, perhaps for the first time in my life, to take care of myself. More than that, I wanted to fully taste the richness of being alive and to do it, I had first to stop running. One must stand still to fully taste. To savor, one must stand still with others. “What do you think? Kerri asks, “More salt?”

Experimentation, trial and error, are the only way. Taste and adjust. And, isn’t that a terrific life credo?

In the recent past, each week, we try new recipes with 20. We’ve discovered some incredible flavors, our repertoire is expanding. Soups and chilis and stir fry. Mostly, that we intend to make meals together, that we slow down and enjoy each other’s company en route to a new taste, an ingredient that we can’t pronounce, a spice that is unknown. “This might be a disaster,” we say as steaming bowls of deliciousness hit the table. “Well, there’s only one way to find out,” we say as we click together our spoons and dive in.

read Kerri’s blogpost about EATING WELL

a photo from before the pandemic. we can’t wait for this to end so we might create more memories like this one.

Find A Horizon [on Not So Flawed Wednesday]

“Be not afraid of growing slowly, be only afraid of standing still.” ~ Chinese Proverb

Each morning, Kerri wanders outside to check her tomatoes. It is one of my favorite new rituals. I watch from the window as she steps out beyond the deck to the potting table, hands on hips, and scrutinizes the plants for newcomers. After a careful count she hurries back into the house to tell me the results of her count. Each day yields a new arrival. “There are ten!” she proclaimed this morning. Then, she took out her phone to show me the photos she’d taken. A family portrait of tomatoes. Miracles in the making.

Seasoned gardeners might not experience the same level of enthusiasm, but we newbies are wide-eyed at the little green orbs that show up overnight, at the basil plants spilling out of their pots.

It has already inspired new recipes. I blubbered on Sunday evening when I tasted the basil-and-tomato-saute over pasta. Food-that-makes-you-close-your-eyes-and-slow-down-so-that-you-can-savor-every-last-bit-of-it is high on my list of pleasures-to-be-cultivated.

We are learning. We are trying new things. We are setting up new spaces, rearranging furniture. At the same time, we are cleaning out, pulling bins from the basement. Sorting. Making space. The energy is moving.

In the past few years, our growth and learning has looked and felt like loss. Job losses, dear ones passing, broken wrists. Armor falling to the ground. Layers peeled. There’s nothing like time spent in the wilderness to put a fire beneath curiosity. When the questions are basic, “What do we do now?,” the available options are at the same time infinite and absent. There’s only one thing to be done and that is to keep moving. Find a horizon and walk toward it.

The tomatoes are harbingers. The season of losing layers may, at last, be done. There is now plenty of space for curiosity, for growing things. “What do we do now?” is still a question floating in the air. But, from our point of view, with the wasteland just behind us, we see the yellow buds and tiny green orbs as signaling a harvest to come. Hope. The energy is moving. A daily visit to the potting bench, rubbing basil leaves to enjoy the scent, seems like just the right amount of forward movement.

read Kerri’s blog post about TOMATOES

Stand In It

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a detail from a recent painting

A surprise package came in the mail. It was a gift from David, my artist’s artist. He sends me things to feed my artist soul, to stir my pot or help me sort out my dilemmas. This gift is more timely than most; it is especially relevant for me now. It is a book of photographs and essays by Walter Kaufmann called Time Is An Artist. I’ve barely cracked the cover and already know it carries the wind that will fill my becalmed life-ship.

This is a quote from the first essay: We always live at the limits, but we are rarely aware of it.

I woke up this morning awash with gratitude for a man who stood in line behind me at an airport ticket counter over 30 years ago. I was returning from Europe. I had a hundred dollars and some lose change in my pocket. I was exhausted. I’d flown from London and landed in a blizzard. My connecting flight from D.C. to Denver was cancelled. Because I was traveling on a cheap open-ended student ticket, the cancelled flight meant I was stuck with no way home. I didn’t know what to do and was too tired to sort it out. I was desperate and lost in my desperation. That’s when the man tapped me on the shoulder. He was a guy in a rumpled business suit. That’s all I remember about him. He was also trying to get home. He’d just heard someone mention an airline offering a cheap flight to Denver. It was $89.00 ($100 with tax). I ran for the ticket counter and snagged one of the few remaining tickets.

That’s it. That’s what I remember about this man who tapped me on the shoulder. To him it was probably a little thing. To me it was enormous. I needed hope beyond desperation. I was investing in a story of limitless problems and was met with a moment of generosity.

It seems that I am in a life course, a graduate school for detachment. Last night P-Tom shared a quote that was important to him when he was doing his chaplaincy in a hospital: Don’t’ just do something, stand there (a reversal of the known quote). Stand there. Amidst the grief and the loss and the mess, sometimes it is essential to do nothing but offer presence. The man at the airport gave me his presence. Beyond his situation he was listening to my struggle.

Detach from your story and the gift will be gratitude. What rolls through our minds is nothing more or less than a story. Eckhart Tolle tells us the story is a force that pulls us out of the Now. Carlos Castaneda writes that Don Juan taught him 3 steps on the warrior’s path: Detach. Make a choice. Own the choice. One of the primary reasons people meditate is to quiet the mind. In the quiet it is possible to see the story as just that, a story. Detachment, in this sense, is not disengagement from life or cold aloofness from reality. It is the doorway to life. Stand in it and not the story of it.

Gratitude lives in the Now. Where else?

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another detail from another painting. kerri says this one looks like gratitude

The man at the airport was on my mind because I have learned in this life-course that gratitude is best served in thimbles: the taste of the pear, the sun on your face. The man tapping your shoulder, “Hey, I just heard….” I thanked him before running but the real gratitude came later. Gratitude came again this morning because I was telling stories of the good angels who’ve populated my path.

Real gratitude for this life lived perpetually on the edge is often lost when the expectation-bar is set too high. To be grateful for your life – your whole life – is… an abstraction. It requires a story that pulls you away from this bite. It is a bucket too big. Savoring is a slow affair, available in the smallest taste, right now.