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The Sacrament of the Ordinary Life

“It was like one of those dreams when you’re filled with some extravagant feeling you might never have in life, it doesn’t matter what it is, even guilt or dread, and you learn from it what an amazing instrument you are, so to speak, what power you have to experience beyond anything you might ever actually need. Who would have thought that the moon could dazzle and flame like that?”

                                                                                                                         Marilynne Robinson, Gilead

I begin the summer break with a sense of relief – grades turned in, semester wrapped up as seamlessly as possible, my Out of the Office reply set, because I am not teaching any summer classes. Normally, this would cause a panic, especially coupled with the fact that my husband has also just been laid off from a wonderful job that he loved. So, we are both at home at least for a few days (he’s already interviewing). It’s bittersweet. Most days we feel like our time together is so limited because of the demands and nature of our work (both of us in creative fields). Now we have time, accompanied by anxiety over the future. It’s hard to come to halt from the daily onslaught of activity, to rest, to genuinely savor this gift of time that we’ve received. 

In a matter of hours, I’ve come close to a panic attack, worrying that now without a rigorous schedule in tow, I will have an unproductive summer. Perhaps fall into one of those TV watching stupors for three months, and emerge with only a quarter of my gray matter still functioning. Confession: I am a thinker and a doer; though a free spirit and an artist, this first-child wiring in me drives me to achievement and performance. I like projects, streamlining processes, solving problems. I know what this says about me: I like to control my world, to understand it, and fashion it according to my own vision. My poet-self, which is antithetical to all of this, loves mystery and meditation, embraces rest and the present moment, searches for beauty, is inward and quiet, and therefore often relegated to the alpha personality. 

With the risk of sounding like I have a multiple personality disorder, I find my two divergent impulses to often be in conflict. And though I need the alpha self, I find that the most authentic part of me, the part that isn’t always in survival mode, is the one that seeks long stretches of silence, where words sing only on the page, where I allow for the things to work themselves out in my mind at their own pace, where I can discard all expectations, including my own. 

This leads me to the idea of sacrament. Whether you are religious, spiritual, or neither, the word sacrament most likely evokes liturgy or communion, practices most common in the Orthodox or Catholic traditions, as a way to connect with a God and in our material reality find ways to manifest that encounter. I am neither Catholic, nor Orthodox (though I appreciate the beauty of each of these traditions), however I believe that it is a basic human need to infuse our lives with a sense of the sacred. I do believe there is an inherent sacredness in being human, and that we all possess intrinsic dignity and value. 

However, as I stay connected to global events, I am saddened by the many human rights violations that point to how this deep sense has been lost.  I think most of us are overwhelmed by the degree of need in this world, and sometimes when faced with the magnitude of the issues surrounding us, it is much easier to shut down emotionally.

In response to all of this, I want to stay awakened, and not distracted or numbed. To impart joy and a sense of sacrament into my daily activities, cleaning my home, writing, caring for my niece, cooking a meal. I don’t want these things to be duties, but delights, done in a spirit of giving for others. I see how a simple meal turns into sacrament if made with a sense of awe and pleasure, if shared with someone in need. 

It’s easy to scoff at the small and the simple. To think that the act of listening when a friend is in pain doesn’t mean much in light of the collective pain of our world. But I choose to think that it does. As this summer unfolds, I’d like to try doing this differently. I’d like to pause for the perfume of a newly ripened apricot, to listen to the warbling of water outside, to learn the lightness and laughter and grief in the voices of my friends. I want to throw open a heavy gate into my private world and perhaps invite those whom I’ve shunned from a place of false intellectual superiority. I want to let myself laugh more, because I’ve grown tired of being too serious about it all.

And I am going to make more dishes like this one, where cheese, fruit, nuts, and honey flirt and play. The mellow sugariness, the bite of salt, the tart chevre. Such a perfect, glamorous, simple dish. 

Caramelized Apricots with Goat Cheese and Pistachio Recipe (makes 10 halves)

Ingredients
5 apricots, halved {not too ripe, firm to touch}
5 tsp brown sugar
5 tbsp cream cheese, room temperature
3 tbsp soft goat cheese, room temperature
2 tbsp pistachios, chopped
1 tbsp honey

Directions 

1. Turn the oven to broil {500 F}. Move the oven rack to the top shelf.

2. Wash, then cut the apricots in half and place them on a baking sheet.

3. Sprinkle the tops with 1/2 tsp of brown sugar. and broil for 10 – 15 minutes. The brown sugar should caramelize and turn light brown.

4. In a small bowl, mix the cream cheese and goat cheese, with a fork or whisk.

5. When the apricots have cooked, remove them from the oven. Place a dollop of the cheese mixture on top of each apricot, followed by a tsp of chopped pistachios, and then drizzle with honey. Serve warm.

(Adapted from Flourishing Foodie)

Going Home

This weekend, Jesse and I drove to West Virginia, where my parents and grandmother live half the year. We were dropping off our dog and cats to stay with my parents for two months. A week from today, Jesse and I will be on a plane bound for China, where we will stay until July. I’m co-leading a study abroad for a month there, and the rest of the time Jesse and I are going to wander around, seeing the sights, eating the food, making memories. I’m thrilled and terrified in equal measure. 

We drove to West Virginia on my birthday. We got in too late for any celebration, but the next day, Saturday, my sister and niece drove over to see us, and we had a lovely day of food and laughter and a walk by the lake. 

Instead of a birthday cake, my mom made these cheesecake cupcakes that were my absolute favorite when I was a kid. I used to invent reasons why I simply had to eat three at a time. One was never, ever, sufficient. And now that I’m thirty-one, I still can’t eat just one. They’re creamy and sweet and the cherries on top are tart and perfectly wonderful. Not gourmet, not fancy, and yes that’s canned cherry pie topping, but there’s something unmistakably delightful about these cupcakes. They taste like my childhood. They are the same taste I relished when I was seven years old and nothing bad had happened that I was that aware of, and everything seemed simple and straightforward. 

Though I was raised in Florida, I was born in West Virginia. My parents were born in West Virginia. And so were my grandparents. Our stories are rooted there. We are rooted there. And when I go back, I smell the same clover and dogwood and fresh sweet grass that I smelled as a child. I can feel the pulse of the mountains, the deep seams of coal that run through our family like marrow. 

And as I prepare to take off for the exact opposite side of the world, it felt fitting to return once more to West Virginia, to the mountains, to my parents, to the place and people who are forever part of me. Part of the thrill of travel is discovering who you are apart from your everyday environment. And part of the thrill of going home is remembering who you have always been and always will be. 

The Old Lady’s Cherry Cheesecake Dessert

(I swear that’s the title that was typed–with an actual typewriter–on the index card recipe)

Ingredients:

  • Vanilla wafers
  • 2x 8oz. cream cheese, softened
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 tsp. vanilla
  • 1 tsp. lemon juice
  • Cherry pie filling (canned)

Directions:

Line cupcake pan with paper cups. Place one vanilla wafer at the bottom of each cup. Mix cream cheese, sugar, eggs, vanilla, and lemon juice to make the “dough” and place dough 3/4 of the way to the top of the cup. Bake 15-20 minutes at 375 degrees until done. Top with cherry pie filling once cooled. 

 

Jesse and I will be posting videos to YouTube while we’re in China. If you want to follow us, subscribe here.

Contained in the Voice

“Sound has a direct influence on our human biology and thus influences our health. This is because every cell in our body has its own vibrational frequency. Human cells are composed of atoms and molecules that resonate according to their mutual harmonies. Many cells together form tissues and organs that are part of a biological system. This system then vibrates according to new harmonies …Sound is the creative principle, and must be regarded as primordial.”
                                                                                                                                   Dr. Hans Jenny

The soul is contained in the human voice.
                                                                                                                                  Borges

We are a culture that privileges seeing above its other senses. In many ways, technology has turned us into both objects and subjects of the gaze. Most of us move through reality heavily reliant on our visual sense as an interpretive guide of our relationship to the world. I am in no way saying this is a negative. For those of us fortunate enough to have a keen sense of sight, reality is a veritable feast for the eyes. The natural world, people’s faces, written text, photographs, skyscrapers, endless beauty.

However, the danger in this over-privileging of sight over the other senses can cause an internal deprivation of experience. Even as I write for this blog, I am already stripping the experience of food to its visual appeal only, because what makes food viscerally desirable and alluring is found more in smell, in texture, even in sound. One of my favorite things is the crunch a fresh carrot, a potato chip, or an apple makes in that first bite. Consider the murmurs of frothing milk, the drip of coffee, the sigh of a fresh artichoke as it becomes unwrapped petal by petal to get to its mysterious tantalizing heart. 

Listening is a lost art. I sat this past week through student presentations, all on heavy and important issues, from domestic violence, to racism, to immigration. I realized after a couple of presentations that I was only half listening. This was not because my students didn’t have my full attention, but because in seeing them, in noticing their micro expressions, the clenching of their hands, their shuffling through index cards, the vulnerability etched on their faces, I would forget to fully engage aurally. In this case, my sense of sight commandeered my ability to fully listen to their stories, to hear the modulations of their voices, to enter their words as one might enter a room. 

I began to close my eyes as they spoke. It was rather amazing to listen in the dark, to hear the honesty in each voice, the secret aches that emerge only in the tremulousness, the chords that they strike when they expressed excitement, fear, longing. 

It takes a great deal of practice to fully control and modulate the tonalities of daily conversation, which means that the deepest authenticity of a person is in their voice. In the ways that we have infinite registers of thought and emotion, our voices too span crescendos and decrescendos to match. What a gift it is to be given the space to speak, to give word and sound to our internal paradigms, to have a witness to our story. How beautiful to create those sacred spaces for others, to offer meaning and immediacy in each encounter. To discover the both essential and marginal poetry of every human life. 

I notice the hunger in every person to be heard. I notice that very few still know to ask questions, to express a genuine interest in another, to listen without calculating their follow up response, or drifting into their own life and plans. Very few know how to redirect their senses outward. 

I want to become a reader of voices, to engage all of senses in every encounter with the world aground me, to bring the totality of my being in the present moment. I want to develop a further sensitivity to the voices of others, to give wide spaces to the people I love to unfold themselves out of their chrysalises of grief and desire, and to weave narrative meaning into the empty spaces of this world. 

Because my work as a professor entails so much verbal engagement with others, both on the speaking and the listening side, most days by the time I arrive home, I crave as much quiet and personal space as possible. Unlike most extroverts, I recharge in silence and aloneness, through meditation, prayer, and reading. Darren who is a designer spends most of his days creating and strategizing in front of a computer. I arrive home depleted of words, he arrives home with many words to share and spend in conversation. He is also wired as a counselor, so he finds a great deal of meaning in asking questions and listening. After being married for a while we have found a way to mitigate the potential perils of our situation. If I can cook for about an hour or so in silence, or perhaps with some Van Morrison in the background, by the time dinner arrives, I am recharged to listen and engage. 

This past Thursday it was tacos and sour beers in our apartment’s Zen garden, which is really a courtyard with fountains and strategically placed patio furniture. It is one of our favorite places to sit in the evenings. There are rarely other people there, so we feel like it belongs to us. We sat in silence for a while, which is one of the best things about being friends, the freedom to speak only what is important to us, and we never feel the compulsion to fill spaces with words. We ate far too many tacos, stained our clothes, laughed. It was that kind of a summer day when only street food and cold beer will suit the mood. 

The recipe for fish tacos is below; you can use any kind of white fish you fancy, or  salmon is also brilliant with this spice combination. While cooking, I ate slices of toast with Le Delice de Bourgogne, because cheese makes all things better.

Chili-Orange Sole Tacos with Avocado Coleslaw 

Makes about 8 tacos
Ingredients:
For the sole
•    1 teaspoon orange zest
•    2 tablespoons orange juice
•    1 tablespoon olive oil, plus more for cooking
•    1 teaspoon chili powder
•    1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
•    1/2 teaspoon cumin
•    1/2 teaspoon coriander
•    1/2 teaspoon paprika
•    2 large garlic cloves, minced
•    1 tablespoon brown sugar
•    1 tablespoon chopped cilantro
•    1 pound sole fillets 
•    Corn tortillas
For the coleslaw
•    2 cups shredded green cabbage
•    2 tablespoons chopped cilantro
•    1/3 cup sliced red onion
•    2 tablespoons sour cream
•    2 tablespoons orange juice
•    1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
•    1/2 teaspoon cumin
•    Salt
•    1 avocado, diced
Directions:
For the sole
1.    In a small bowl, combine orange zest, juice, olive oil, spices, garlic, sugar and cilantro.
2.    Place sole in a zip-closed bag and pour mixture over, coating all sides. Refrigerate for about 1 hour.
3.    When ready to cook, heat a drizzle of olive oil over medium heat in a nonstick pan. Place sole in hot pan and cook for about 2-3 minutes per side, depending on thickness and desired doneness. Flake apart.
For the coleslaw
1.    Meanwhile, in a large bowl combine the cabbage, cilantro and red onion.
2.    In a small bowl, whisk together the sour cream, orange juice, vinegar and cumin. Season with salt, to taste. Pour over cabbage and toss well.
3.    Add the diced avocado to the cabbage mixture and toss lightly. Refrigerate while the sole marinates. Stir well just before serving.
To assemble
1.    Place cooked sole on warm corn tortillas. Top with coleslaw.
2.    Garnish with additional cilantro, jalapeños, and spring or green onions if desired.