August 27, 2009 § 6 Comments
I’m just back from a week in Florida. In addition to visiting family and enjoying the beach and the storm-tossed sea, I revisited Disney’s Animal Kingdom, which nearly killed me last year (as chronicled in the blog entry “The Happiest Place on Earth.”) This year, thanks to technical difficulties, I didn’t have to face down my fear of the Everest ride (“Of course you can do it,” said another in our party. “They strap you in and in about three minutes it’s done.” His point, I guess, is that it is an all but involuntary procedure, not really a test of any finer, inner quality.) This year, there was just the comparatively gentle safari ride (where I saw a silver back gorilla who embodied what it means to be still and alert, nothing but his eyes moved as he sat and took in supposedly higher life forms that moved about restlessly in the oppressive August heat)–the white water rapids ride–the dinosaur ride–all rides that Alex and I have come to experience as memories (“Remember, the first time you did this ride you closed you eyes the whole time). During the trip, I happened to be reading Surprised by Joy by C.S. Lewis at Alex’s urging, because she was much impressed with it last year in college. I kept thinking about the differences and similarities between Lewis’s definition of Joy which is infused with a sense of memory, of nostalgia, of an overwhelming longing for something that overtakes him each time with “the same surprise and the same sense of incalculable importance. It was something quite different from ordinary life and even from ordinary pleasure; something…’in another dimension.'” Lewis contrasts Joy, which is “that of an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction” with mere Happiness–and he never link it with Disney Happiness. Still, there is something in the way Alex was embracing the place in every detail including (especially) the nostalgia the place provoked–there was something about the way she kept remembering the experiences that she was having again that reminded me of Lewis’s Joy: It has to do with remembering! Remembering the joy that surprised him on a certain walk (for Alex, a certain ride) brought an experience of the same kind: “But then what I had felt on the walk had also been desire, and only possession in so far as that kind of desire is itself desirable, is the fullest possession we can know on earth; or rather, because the very nature of Joy makes nonsense of our common distinction between having and wanting. There to have is to want and to want is to have. Thus, the very moment when I longed to be so stabbed again, was itself again such a stabbing….”
Maybe this is a weird quote to include in a blog. Still, thinking of Alex’s full tilt embrace of the nostalgia of the Disney experience–and registering of my own painful sense of time passing, that I was remembering being with her and with the rest of my family even as I was with them –it dawns on me that what he is trying to capture is true! And this act of remembering is crucial in the process of being fully human.
And I know perfectly well that Lewis was writing about a longing for alignment with something from another level, something holy, not a longing for the “Kali River Rapids Ride”…Not a longing to get in line or to “Have a Wild Time” (as they say when you buy a ticket) one more time. But there was something pure of heart in what was happening. And as Lewis himself says, “all things in their way, reflect heavenly truth.”
August 17, 2009 § 2 Comments
What a thrill it is to see Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child, Simone Beck, and Louisette Bertholle at the top of the Amazon bestseller list, and for weeks now! Of course this has something to do with the appeal of Meryl Streep’s extraordinary performance in Julie & Julia. It is also possibly evidence that in uncertain times, people take refuge in timeless activities like cooking–or the fantasy of creating wonderful dinner parties (I took to reading cookbooks on Metro North to Manhattan in the dark months after 9/11). But it also confirms something I discovered after reviewing hundreds of books and interviewing bestselling authors for Publishers Weekly. To paraphrase the great mystic G.I. Gurdjieff, people who have a real passion for a craft and do it really well also have something to teach the rest of us about deeper truths in life. While I never had the pleasure of meeting Julia Child, I did meet and talk with a few chefs, including Patrick O’Connell, who turned a former gas station in the rolling Virginia countryside into what is thought to be one of the most sumptious and original restaurants in the world, the Inn at Little Washington. I met O’Connell one long-ago night at Restaurant Daniel on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Chef proprietor Daniel Boulud himself was honoring O’Connell by preparing recipes from Patrick O’Connell’s Refined American Cuisine and I got to taste how deeply savory, how, well, resonant and even moving seemingly simple snacks like pizza with wild mushrooms can be.
Days later, I spoke to O’Connell by phone. We actually spoke about Julia Child and the culinary revolution she began, a revolution that continues to evolve with the work of American chefs like Alice Waters and himself. O’Connell made the point that American cuisine is now on a par with–if not eclipsing–French haute cuisine. It started with Child’s openness to the experience of great food: “When you experience the best, you realize that it is humanly possible to create it, ” O’Connell told me.
And how do we achieve that greatness?
“I think the discipline or approach you need to take to learn to cook is the same for anything you might want to pursue….You have to give everything you have. I’ve given cooking demonstrations to young chefs where I’ve brought a broom. I demonstrate how to use it. The point is that when I learn how to become one with the broom, when I learn to engage completely in what I am doing, I will sweep the floor perfectly. It is the same with cooking. I have to learn to become one with the food, to engage with what is in front of me with my whole being. ”
O’Connell also spoke with me about the importance of finding your place in the universe, of connecting with life, of coming home to our true nature. He discovered what it was to have a sense of place in the countryside of Washington, Virginia. Instead of the distracted state he felt he was in in the city, his priorities shifted to the basics of country life, the goodness of being warm and dry and fed: “In the country, you realize you want to share what you have with other people, so you have a sense of connection with others.”
I asked him if he thought people can taste this heightened sense of connection and generosity in his food (people from all over the world travel to the remote Inn at Little Washington): “If you make it that way, it will be received that way. People will receive it no matter how dense they are….If you have purity of intention, it gets through. It reaches them all.”
I interviewed a few other chefs and food writers and I’ll get to that later. For now, suffice it to say that based on the Amazon list the quality of passionate openness and engagement that Julia Child embodied is reaching people in a way that Julie Powell’s likable but gimmicky book just can’t.
August 10, 2009 § 6 Comments
“We can be human only in fellowship, in community, in justice and peace. We need each other to become truly free,” Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. This quote has special resonance because I’m still fresh from the experience of spending Saturday evening at the Orchard House Cafe in Manhattan. The event kicked off Parabola’s latest issue, The Path. There were stories, songs, and a wonderful live performance (accompanied by hand drums) of an extraordinary poem by the French spiritual seeker Rene Daumal. Roger Lipsey, who read aloud some of Daumal’s letters, said Daumal’s words didn’t seem to want to stay on the page, that they seemed to be made to be spoken. Listening to them, I understood although I’m hard pressed to say what I received. There was a dimension, a world of micro (or nano?) impressions about his effort and aspiration that didn’t get reading his poetry on the page. How good it was to be there listening with others! All evening, even when I had to speak briefly and was nervous, I had impressions of being supported and liberated by being with others. In my last blog post, I wrote about receiving an impression of myself in a moment of being really hurt and angry, and how that pushed me out of the ordinary groove of thought and opened me up to a new impression. Someone wrote an interesting response to that blog that touched on what it can be like to have the light of awareness illuminate some of ideas and feelings about the world that are submerged like old sunken ships in depths of ourselves. At the Orchard House on Saturday, I realized that being with others (especially the kind who would travel there to hear a poem with the refrain “Remember”) can open us up to a truth that is higher and finer and quicker and more alive than anything any of us could climb up to on our own.
August 3, 2009 § 7 Comments
The great stories about ancient heroes like Achilles and Odysseus reveal that it isn’t always in spite of our weaknesses, mistakes, and shortcomings but through them that something unknown can come into being. Achilles pride is also the source of his strength (and his weakness is the source of his destiny); Odysseus cleverness charted a long and perilous journey from the pits of misery and captivity to freedom and homecoming. The hero with all his glaring flaws, through all his spectacular mishaps, was meant to fulfill what Mary Poppins creator and Parabola founding editor P.L. Travers called “the essential mythical requirement: the reinstatement of the fallen world.”
The revelation is that the same principles apply to the rest of us. When you hit bottom, a new world can open up. Friends of mine recently asked me to reflect on how a mistake, shortcoming, or misfortune has enriched my spiritual practice. I’ve been carrying the question around for weeks wondering how in the world a person is to choose. On the one hand, there has been no catastrophic and soul-defining mistake or misfortune–convicting the wrong man of a heinous crime and spending a life time atoning for (ala the book and movie Atonement) or contracting polio and conducting a war-time American presidency from a wheel- chair like FDR. On the other hand, my ego is defined by mistakes, shortcomings, and misfortunes. I’ve heard the ego defined as the “pain body.” I’ve heard it defined as a web of habits, of physical, emotional, and mental addictions, all of them aimed at helping us keep our story about ourselves going, defending us from a pure, unfiltered encounter with reality. The Buddhists speak of the “three poisons” at the root of much of human suffering — greed (or lust), anger (or hatred), and delusion. Once in a blue moon, I experience one of these poisons to such a raging, blinding degree that I surrender to the truth of it. For once, I don’t justify or downplay or deny. I just admit that I have been helpless to my anger, say, and that it has hurt me and hurt others. In those moments, it seems clear that what I call spiritual practice has mostly been thinking. Then, as if by magic, other possibilities open up: patience for myself and others (and patience is an incredible healing balm against anger), lovingkindness, connection with what really is.