Tag Archives: food

Self-Compassion, Lessons Learned

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April was a survey course in the pleasure and difficulty of being.

My first week of practice felt incredible, it was much easier than I imagined. I felt rested and energized. I laughed more, joked more with the kids, had loads more patience. My metta sits were restorative and full of a pleasant, peaceful presence. I felt my subtle heartbeat and a warm, tingling energy instead of the tight ache in my chest that I have become so used to. It was the best I have felt in as long as I can remember. It seemed miraculous that such simple adjustments could make such a big difference.

In truth, I have been deliberately working on self-care in one form or another for over a year now. It’s not fair to ascribe the benefits one week’s practice just to April’s activities, but they certainly changed how think about the basics of good health. Making decisions takes energy. Meeting conflict with creativity and kindness takes energy. What I had failed to realize is that this is equally true of my internal experience as well as what I experience in the world. Being self-centered, which seems to me to mostly be our default state, makes it hard to have perspective on how our behavior affects others, but it also makes it hard to see how our behavior affects ourselves. When we are both the actor and receiver of our actions, it is doubly hard to see either the behavior or consequences from a different perspective. I am constantly making decisions and resolving internal conflicts all day long, even before I interact with anyone else, which is also pretty much happening all the time. If this month’s practice is any indication, I have grossly underestimated the amount of energy – the kind that comes directly from food, sleep and exercise – required to do this well.

But things were going great, and I was enjoying my walk in the wonderland of self-love so much, I wandered right off the path. I had friends visit, and stayed up late. Then, I randomly decided to apply for a TED Fellowship, with two days remaining before the deadline. I watched this force of ego energy latch onto this idea and insist on making it happen, and I started using all my quiet time, and staying up late, to get it done on time. Then I hosted Easter. And packing all of that into nine days came at the expense of my practice, which I had categorically stated I was willing to prioritize over other activities. My capacity of discrete commitment to myself appears to be about a week long. I find this amazing. If you asked me what was more important than my health and well-being, for myself, and also to be of service to others, I would say nothing is. But I don’t act as though this is true, and seeing the gap between what I claim as my truth and what I live as my truth, is critical to being free from the dissatisfaction that springs from the rift between the two. I realized how special it is, how unusual it is, to be a person that commits to something over and over for months, or years, or a lifetime. And I do not mean the commitment of conditioning, of unconscious habit, which is common, but the commitment to counter-conditioning, which is exceedingly rare and difficult.

Breaking out of our conventions requires this unusual style of spacious resistance – a style of resistance that is permeable, and by being so can not be moved. I find this very difficult; I barely understand it. More and more I see the world, and my experiences here as parts of relationships – nothing I do is actually isolated or independent. As I began to focus on self-compassion, so too grew my compassion for others, which was central to the pleasure of my experience in my first week of practice. I expected this, and then I watched myself get distracted. I watched myself deliberately break the tension that allows me to live inside of relationship, and spill over to become a dimension of it.

There is so much pleasure in getting lost inside something else, of losing my permeability and getting snapped into the flow. And the second I go, I lose my commitment to willingness. There is so much pleasure in the collusion of one more late night drink with a beloved friend. There is so, so much pleasure in ego energy. It has an electrifying, euphoric, driven, quality that is, frankly, just fucking awesome, not to mention how useful it is for getting something done. But this style of surrender comes at a price – I spent the last week of April sick, and exhausted. And despite this, what I discovered, is that I’m not willing to give these up yet. I’m not sure if I ever will be.

I’m frightened of the consequences of single-minded pursuit, despite the fact that the ravages of flaccid attention and effort are clear to me already. Living inside a relationship of continuous allegiance requires the exclusion of so much. This is why simple things, like sitting still, or committing to a value, are difficult – it requires the sacrifice of the myriad, ready pleasures that tug and tap and rub and whisper a thousand times a day. It requires saying no thank you, over, and over, and over, not just to the small things but the big things too, to people we love, and causes we believe in. It requires confronting, then releasing, the sadness of loss again and again, while maintaining faith in the value of our pursuit, because what we focus on dictates what we miss. How well we focus, determines how much we miss. It is a tremendous responsibility to live one’s life with the severity of deep commitment, and perhaps that is why so few of us are truly able to do it. We are too clumsy to undertake it with the exquisiteness required, and attempting to do so unskillfully, only spills the blood of our sacrifice with out generating any sustenance from our offering. We are not, as we are so often told, limited by our imaginations; we are limited by our willingness. It is a great gift, to know my capacity, and to choose again with more clarity.

I discovered something else beautiful this month, seemingly opposite of willingness, which was the effortless and spontaneous pleasure of offering something I value to another. When I host company, I like my home to be (mostly) be clean and orderly. I like to make beautiful, delicious food to eat together. Even though I like to entertain, preparing for company is typically an anxiety-ridden activity for me. I get concerned about everything looking nice enough, tasting good enough, and being right. It tends to be stressful. But this time was different.

The planning, and bustle, and work of cooking took on a quality of gratitude for the chance to express my love that way, and excitement about sharing the meal together. Being aware of how good healthy, regular eating was helping me feel, significantly intensified the pleasure of making food for others. As I cleaned, scrubbing and wiping the places that usually go neglected for months, I did it with a totally different intention than I had before. I did it as an offering of love, instead of as evidence of my worth. I realized that I had come to recognize and accept how much I value space and order, and why. For me these qualities, represent safety, clarity, and love. They represent a space of peace and openness in which distractions and discomforts are minimized so that one’s energy can be placed on being present, rather than grappling with the environment. Creating a space like this in my home is a sign of respect and love for the people I welcome. What a pleasure it was to witness the transformation that occurred in my intention from one of compliance and approval-seeking to one of devotional offering. This is the humble and profound power of discovering and living my values, rather than simply enacting a set of rules – feeling joyful for the chance to wipe the shit off the rim of the toilet. The power of love never ceases to surprise me.

August Tenth

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The heavy rain has knocked off the ripe cherry tomatoes that I have been too lazy, too dazey, to pick. I gather the warm tomatoes off the warm brick steps and pile them in my hand, and then against my belly. I notice the hydrangeas, my favorite fluffy, conical clouds of summer. I will cut some, before they are gone. Thank you rain, thank you tomatoes, for reminding me about the hydrangeas. I would be lost completely without a little guidance.

Two days ago, I looked at blinding, glossy gold sunshine, beaming off the dark green oak leaves at the top of the tree. I wept. I wept for how beautiful it was. I wept for my inability to see my own glossy, golden light, so broad and heavy was my dark canopy. I wept at the awareness that I could not feel my own beauty.

I am wistful today. I feel duality in everything around me. I am grateful for my ability, today, to welcome the vicious gifts that have been offered to me. To look for and find – to appreciate and name gratitude for – the beauty, the shadow of light, that by necessity is – that by the laws of existence I know to be – there on the other side, holding up the darkness.

Fragrant Skeletons, Colored Husks and the Living Dead

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I spent the afternoon in my garden today, and encountered so many metaphors for my own life it was laughable. It also made me realize how much I love being close to nature, and how good I feel when I am.

I have a small garden in my back yard – it’s gone feral. I decided to put in some tomatoes and herbs, since they can be planted in an afternoon, and, for me, are quintessential of summer eating.  The bed I would have ideally put them in has become home to a surprise strawberry patch. I have no idea where they came from, or how I ended up with so many – there are probably 10 plants – and I have never planted strawberries in my garden. I’d suspect the compost, except I didn’t get any added last fall. Less surprising was a variety of lettuce that reseeded itself, including some arugula that has already come and gone, and has a new batch of seed pods. Chives, sporting lovely purple blossoms, and some massive onions, that are now on their third year unharvested, rounded out the plot. The whole ensemble was so pretty, so vivacious and industrious, I didn’t really want to interfere.

So the tomatoes went in the less sunny bed to the right. This bed is falling apart, on account of being over-engineered. It was the first of the two I put together, and in my eagerness to construct a raised bed for the ages, I added a bunch of brackets to the design. They were supposed to reinforce everything, but really they just get in the way, and the whole front of the bed has separated and is sagging away. I screwed the second bed together a few weeks later in the pouring rain. I was in a furious mood, angry that it still wasn’t done. I didn’t spend any time on a fussy plan, I just put all the pieces together (goddamnit), and that thing is still holding up like a champ.

My beds are open on the bottom so the roots from a neighboring sugar maple creep in. They’re dense and make it inhospitable for anything new to grow. Turning the soil always involves breaking these apart, pulling them out. The sugar maple seems no worse for the wear, and I’m amazed each time at how extensive its root system is. These roots are at the edge of the network, they’re smaller, and you can see the thousands of terminating tips – they always remind me of the capillary system in our lungs. I pull them out and shake off the dirt. I think about giant, upside down, underground lungs that choke other life.

Cherry tomatoes go in a planter out front, since sunshine is scarce around back. There are a few husks from last year. Paper thin, empty, but nearly as bright. I leave them in and pour more soil and and compost on top. Two of the plants are root bound. I gently pull them apart. I try to point them out of the circle they’ve been growing in, without doing too much damage.

I have another planter of herbs, next to the tomatoes. My rosemary has not wintered over. Two years ago it managed to get by, but this past winter was too cold and snowy. I pull out the woody skeletons and fragrance fills the air. This seems impossible. I smell the dry, dead stalks. Rosemary. I think about the fragrance of our bones. I think about memory as a kind of fragrance. I put in three new rosemary plants, which I also smell, since I love rosemary. I love it on grilled lamb chops. I nestle them on either side of the oregano, which winters beautifully, and is also good on lamb chops with feta cheese.

I accidentally kill two things while trying to find out what they used to be. The first is in an amber shell. I can’t tell if its a cocoon, or a seed pod. It comes up as I am turning over the soil. I try to tear open the shell, to see what was inside, and a pale, slightly green, creamy fluid leaks out. It was not a seed pod. I remember that sometimes things look dead that are not. Sometimes they are deliberately hidden and dead looking to improve their chances of making it through the metamorphosis. Later, I see an odd, very small bundle of dried stems on the underside of an oregano leave. It looks like a teeny, tiny bundle of sticks. It is clearly dead. I wonder what little creature used such a configuration, and pluck it off to see. The stems are bound surprisingly tight and as I try to break them apart, a pale, slightly yellow, creamy fluid leaks out. I’m embarrassed. I remember that sometimes things look dead that are not.

Colin calls urgently for me to come look at something. He’s up on our deck and pointing excitedly to a turtle he’s just found. I’m having a hard time seeing him clearly, because I’m up against a cheap, badly installed fence that I put up to keep the kids from running towards the street. My kids could knock this fence over in a heart beat. The only person it’s an effective deterrent for is me. It does not give me any sense of security, and it’s hugely inconvenient.

I am sure that we do not have a turtle on our deck, and in fact, I’m pretty sure what he’s pointing at is a wasp’s nest. I tell him this, and ask him to back up. I hurry the long way around the house, hoping he doesn’t get stung, and run up the steep steps of our deck. It’s not a turtle. It’s not a wasp’s nest. It’s a beautiful green and grey amphibian. It’s skin texture looks like a toad, but I have never seen a toad this color. Its sides are smooth and moist like a frog.

It has been on our hot deck all day long. I actually vaguely saw it this morning. I was sweeping off the deck and got buzzed by a wasp. I looked over towards where it came, and saw a nest above our door, and a grey shape on the very outside corner of the deck floor. I assume this gray shape is part of the nest that’s fallen, or perhaps a new nest that’s being built. Neither of these mental explanations make any sense, because the nest is in tact, and I have never, ever seen a wasp’s nest built on the ground- they always hang. I know this at the time, but I am so afraid of getting stung, and so distracted watching the nest while I sweep, that I never look carefully at the grey shape to see what it actually is.

Now I am captivated. Not only is this little toad (I temporarily settle on toad) strikingly beautiful, it’s bizarre and improbable. What on earth is it doing on our deck, two stories up? How did it get up the stairs? Why did it come up here, and how did it make it through a day in the baking sun? For a moment I am afraid it is dead. It’s terribly still, despite the fuss we’re making over it. But its eyes are open, and then I see, yes, it’s belly is moving as it breaths. I am worried that it will dry out and die (perhaps it is a frog after all), that it is too weak from being in the sun to make it back down the stairs. I am worried my kids will try to pick it up and it will get knocked, or jump, off the edge.

I decide to pick it up and move it. A voice in the back of my head suggests that perhaps, given my track record, the little amphibian does not need my help. Perhaps it would be better off, in fact, without it. I consider this. I am genuinely concerned that it is going to die from heat and dehydration. Plus, I really want to hold it. I cup my hand around it, to keep it from jumping off, and scoop with my other hand. It has big, semi-translucent toe pads, and the underside of it’s legs are smooth, wet, and golden yellow. Frog.

The kids are excited. We bring it down to the garden.  It’s very calm. It sits on my hand. It’s so beautiful. I feel happy. I place it in the wet soil next to the tomatoes. It feels like a good omen. It feels like a blessing on my garden. Later, they want to see if it’s still there. It is, on the mulch behind the beds. They don’t see it, and I decide to let it rest. Later still, they want to check again. This time I show them where it is. It’s much browner now, it looks like a toad again. We talk about camouflage. They ask if we can look again in the morning. I tell them we can.

Winter Tomatoes

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What do you do with a winter tomato? Roast it with salt and pepper, oil, and good vinegar. Reduce and augment it, to turn it more into itself.  

I push my finger through the tender wall, and hollow out the cavities. Carefully slip my finger between the ribs, feeling for the seedy meat. Hook. Pull. Flick. Wet flesh in a surgeon’s tray. Jelly coddled seeds seep towards the drain. Humiliated by their exile, angry at their abortion. Suspended in the protection that bears them away, they glare we are the essence, how could you? 

In the heat of the oven, the shells sigh, yes, this is what I am. They relax their bodies, cell by cell, with each scorching breath.

Dinner for Ali

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Ali is a beautiful person. I’m really lucky to know her. We’re about the same age, our kids are about the same age. We have similar personalities. We both grew up in Vermont, and moved to the same town in MA, before we ever met each other. Funny, huh? Sometimes it takes a while for things to happen.

I made dinner for Ali yesterday, because she had a lot going. It was the highlight of my day, cooking dinner for Ali, listening to pop music, dancing in my kitchen, making beautiful food for someone I love. Thanks Ali. Thanks for being so special.