Thanksgiving: Notes from a Small Eater

The Thanksgiving feast will commence tomorrow afternoon and I will be quaking ever so quietly, studying the food with unease counterbalanced by good will. I’ll take my place at the table, made longer with a second extra leaf to seat 12. I’ll cast my eye over the repast. Roasted turkey with its accompaniment of velvety gravy; bright sweet potatoes and delectable brussels sprouts; green beans with fennel; cranberry/apple/orange relish; that golden mound of potatoes; a roasted beet and squash salad. And not least, stuffing. And pecan and pumpkin pies, of course. I’m leaving something out, no doubt; let me check with my husband on that.

Consuming that food will prove a challenge for me. It always does. I’ve shared with my parents and a couple of siblings an unfortunate proclivity for digestive issues, from colitis to diverticulitis to IBS to a general dyspepsia–whatever decides to attack every few days/weeks months. We also do battle with any number of food intolerances and allergies, even when all else behaves better. So eating with abandon is unlikely. Eating large amounts in utter faith that happiness will reign in stomach and gut is downright foolishness. Yes, there are medicines–they help manage things but do not cure. Accordingly, I have a complicated relationship with food and tend to keep it simple: whatever is a known factor and bland, whatever appears benign is what I enjoy. Every now and then I throw caution to the wind and exult in my good fortune. But that is infrequent to rare.

My life has been physically very active and I enjoy getting out and meeting people, travelling and finding fresh experiences. But unless you have these ills, you may not imagine how they dictate daily choices. How one’s digestion system can create a false appearance of anorexia or even annoying finickiness. How it influences what you do and where. How it can wreak havoc on what was a delightful time with a gathering of friends. Nonetheless, I appreciate food when feeling mediocre to well. The rest of the time it still appeals to me– but in theory.

Thus, I can work up real excitement about enticing new recipes. I like to peruse exotic or historical cookbooks, albeit with some longing. Meanwhile, chiming in with my ideas gets a nod or two from my husband as he prepares dinner; he cares for my well being and has some interest in my feedback. He took over much of the cooking years ago since I cooked for 7 people–often more as children brought home buddies–each day for twenty years. Now I more look forward to sprucing up the home and dressing up the worn antique table with a pretty tablecloth, an arrangement of flowers and candles. I seek a balanced but lively look.

Last Saturday we went to our favorite farmer’s market, exclaiming over earth’s astonishing bounty. I appreciate ogling edible items and having our coffers well-stocked. I got to pick a few goods while he chose others. I am drawn to baked treats–carbs are easy to handle–or vibrant fruits while he waxes nostalgiac over heirloom vegetables. He at times imagines himself a bonafide chef; I am usually grateful he does. He can eat anything, it seems, and will research and prepare food with a gusto I cannot quite fathom.

M. is an engineer, an expert in manufacturing quality assurance. His position requires detailed data gathering, statistical process control and overseeing the production at three plants. He is passionate about systems, spread sheets and problem solving. It turns out these come in handy as he prepares for a large meal like Thanksgiving dinner. Not only does he create a grid of needed items on computer, he keeps notebooks in which are jotted down ideas and recipes. They are accompanied by doodles–decent ones–in colored pencils, commentary that is a bit mysterious. He devises a timetable of days, hours, minutes. He has, in fact, records of previous years: how long things took to cook, at what temperatures, what seasonings and recipes worked or did not and why, the line up for oven and stove—well, you get the gist of it. As noted, he’s an engineer.

All the while he is singing praises (at times literally–he sings well) of the beautiful food he gets to work with, the dishes he will create. (“Look at the cranberries, they’re like jewels!”) And I help out. I fetch things, shop for items, make sure he has forgotten nothing vital. Clean up, provide fresh tea towels as the used ones fall to the floor. I’m like the assistant in the slightly mad scientist’s laboratory. But mostly I’m not too welcome in the kitchen as he gears up to full speed. For one thing, it’s a small u-shape. Our city apartment is good-sized but for some reason the design didn’t include a kitchen that more than 3 medium-sized bodies can comfortably occupy. And when he gets into motion, well, one can be elbowed or squashed if venturing in unannounced. Or even if I call out a warning. For M. is busy with executive direction and production of a feast! He is engaged in an important purpose, heading toward that goal of having every dish ready at the same time–the hour people are to arrive for his delicious dinner. Even if he doesn’t quite have time to change his clothes, it will happen.

I admire his can-do attitude as he solves timing issues or plows past mini-failures. More so, his joyful industry. But he didn’t always pitch in during mealtimes; he traveled often those earlier years. He does now at times but how much easier to to fix food for one. Even a sandwich will do.

So I cooked for our brood but it was often at the last hour, favoring one pot meals of stews, hearty soups or chili, baking a nice roast or chicken with a few veggies thrown in, then tossing a big (easy) salad. I had better things to do–running 5 kids everywhere, doing house chores, working for pay, trying to find a few moments to write. Or slowly breathe, alone somewhere. Creating one stanza of poetry would provide me with gratitude and a generous benevolence for days. Yes, food was important to growing children, but it didn’t need to take longer than 30 minutes prep time. It didn’t need, well, frills.

Besides, I had to fix decent food despite being chronically ill with the woes; i.e., feeling nauseous and/or in pain. I wanted to love cooking and all manner of fabulous food and to hone great skills, but I needed primarily for my children to eat well enough on a then-tight budget. I often just ate their leftovers, a habit that suited me if others thought it a bit odd. It beat saving scraps in the frig, then forgetting about them until they bloomed with unsavory growth.

I recall at least once being asked to specify the things I could not eat. The one recounted was for a visit to my mother-in-law’s. I told her to not worry about it, then at her insistence listed the culprits. It was my spouse’s mother, after all. But to my embarrassment, the list was long; to me, the food taboos were instinctive, well-ingrained. A simple part of my living. I hated to put her out, for her to shop for special things as though I was a poor sickly person who had to be accommodated. I am self-conscious reminding people of even though it is hazardous if I don’t. No one likes to draw attention to themselves over something that others take for granted. But I can’t just dismiss food’s potential hazards as if a small annoyance, a fly buzzing over your plate.

I hear things clanging around in the kitchen. My husband calls out to me.

“Cynthia, do you know where I stored the big roasting pan for the turkey?”

“It’s where you always keep it…”

“No. Not there. I have looked everywhere.”

“Did you look in the cupboard above the frig? The ones below and  above the stove? Way back in the corner of the main one? The storage room?”

“Yes, yes, yes…but it’s not anywhere!”

M. is marinating a 17 pound turkey in brine tonight and tomorrow it will be roasted long and well. I push away from the computer desk, get the flashlight and lay down on the kitchen floor. I am smaller than is he, admittedly more agile. I peer long and hard into the big cupboard. Nothing but pots and pans and wait, a casserole dish I had forgotten, plus a swooping cobweb or two in the farthest shadowy corner. I can see no spiders but that means nothing in Oregon. I consider eliminating the cobwebs before I meet up with said sly spider some morning when I am too tired to notice. But he asks me if the pan is found so onward with the search. After five minutes, the roaster pan is still missing. He throws up his hands and grabs his jacket and is off to the store once again.

I adore that M. loves to cook, that he finds joy in colluding smells and flavors, textures and colors. I do, too; the variety of food and combinations is entrancing. But I am ever the prudent eater. A consumer of small sums of known things. I cheer him on as he blazes a culinary trail: raw to cooked, freezer to oven, salt and pepper to fennel and chestnuts and cranberries and yams. I can be duly surprised how well things turn out; other times, just surprised…but I am without question grateful he will cook. When he sets my plate on the table, a stained tea towel dangling from his forearm, I feel special.

That is what tomorrow will mean to all 12 of us: being treated well, feeling treasured, partaking of the banquet with one another. As did my mother, I set the table with care, center the flower vase just so, light the candles as the family takes their seats. We’ll take each other’s hands and say a brief prayer. Often we share what we are grateful for. And the eating begins. I will dig in the best I can. This overflowing table will be duplicated in countless homes all over our country. My hope is that few if any spend the afternoon hungry or alone; our city provides thousands of meals on Thanksgiving.

Afterwards there will remain the same work I had as a child at home: cleaning up the aftermath. I might pick at what’s left, get the dessert dishes lined up for pie later. So I will set the coffee to brewing, the tea kettle boiling. It’s all good. Good and satisfying. The murmur of my family’s voices will find me as I quietly rinse and wash, stack and dry. The pleasure has been in sharing time, thoughts and conviviality over a hearty meal. Giving my attention to each who has favored me with his or her presence.

I might have some company, my son or daughter, grandchildren checking in, asking if they can help–and what’s next? (Likely a game of charades or a chat about school, maybe some art making if we’re inclined.) Or my husband will sneak up, place his arms about me from behind as I scrub and scrape, my wavy grey-streaked hairdo now out of sorts. He’ll give me a squeeze and then find a spot to put his feet up. Belly full. Content with all for the moment. Me, too.

 

{Thank You, O God, for the gathering of family and friends, the sharing of sustaining food. Awaken the love that You have provided our hearts and souls. Deepen Your healing over this world rent with strife and grievousness. Provide us with steadfast courage. May we find and share hope in coming days and nights. Bless and guide our lives with deep peace and compassion. Amen.}

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Prayer as a Boat

 

??????????What is it about prayer that draws or repels people? There are those who find it as unsubstantiated or irrelevant as the idea that there are other planets supporting life. People scoff at prayer, perhaps think anyone foolish enough to believe in it deserves the result– undoubtedly nothing, the naysayers state. For some it is a critical discipline their faith requires. For others, a spontaneous plea. Many fall back on it when everyday words will not address their need. And others use the very words “prayer” or “praying” as they talk as a sort of protection, to salvage or to inspire, as if it’s very invocation will work the miracles desired. I understand the urge. But prayer goes so much deeper that it can carry us away. Look to the mystics, the holy men and women, and how prayer can shape everything.

If you don’t believe in the path of prayer, then you have stopped reading. If you do or are uncertain perhaps you will let me offer a few more ruminations. It appears those who pray may or may not state belief in Divinity, may not attend a place of worship regularly or at all, and might even deny they are praying when they look as if they are. They explain that they talk to “something”, deep inside their own hearts, their higher minds perhaps, or find a ubiquitous energy experienced within nature’s confounding ways.

Prayer is a vehicle that creates and then carries a language particular to itself. I don’t mean it need always (or ever) retain a certain form or word count. Rather, it can find its own way. It is often imbued with profound feeling, searching questions or even demands. Offered up as a gift or request or a painful need, it is meant to refresh or make a stronger connection to that Other, God, and gain more understanding. Hope when it has been confounded by trials. Clarification of our lives, our paths.

A prayer may be words so often repeated that we have them memorized. It can transfix us, entreat us to go further. It may become wordless, a meditation that moves us into a realm where God seems greatly illumined within and without. A sacred unity. Have you reached for prayer and found yourself emptied of words? We listen better then; we find we know more of the answer than we imagined. We discover that Divine Love absolutely recognizes our thoughts and needs, so praying is becoming present, attuned. Aligning our souls with Spirit, a most natural phenomenon.

I am Christian but I am not writing about specific religious creeds. I came into the world certain of the abiding presence of God. Prayer for me is the language of true, whole living, a bridge that takes us from smallness of self to a greater sense of good. To the infinite source of wisdom and compassion. Without prayer I likely would not have managed to stay afloat during the often perilous voyage through the years. It is an–at least, my–ancient, sturdy boat, the underpinning that holds up my living. It refreshes, instructs and frees me. Heals the sore places and recalibrates parts that are out of sync. Redeems my petty ego with grace. It is a tool God gave us so we would not be alone, no matter what.

Prayer finds me wandering and takes me back home again. I call out and I am answered with unshakeable, encompassing Love. I don’t need every detail for direction. The responses may sometimes mystify me. But I know God knows us. If I welcome God I will understand my own heart, mind and soul more completely.

Prayer will find the words for me when I am seeking truth. All I have to do is open to its gift, the magnitude of connecting to the sacred. And today, on the eve of Thanksgiving, I am moved to pray for us all.

Prayer for Us All/Giving Thanks

Let us speak of vividness, the living
who zigzag through days and nights
stunned with self-importance, or
who become brave or transformed,
are found weakened or terrified,
who confront evil with numinous light
or fall under a burden of emptiness.

May we hold close to the certain Center,
may we find this miracle river bright;
may we answer as our names are called,
Let One Love embrace without restraint.

Let us speak of the everywhere dying,
(our flesh made for bounty yet fragile),
of those who cling to the mad glory of life
or fight to wake as long sleep closes in,
who have no time left to share common joys
yet flare and float within the singing dark.

May we hold close to the certain Center,
may we keep this miracle river bright;
may we answer as our names are called,
Let One Love embrace without restraint.

Let us speak of myriad souls now gone,
they who gave us form and voice,
who knew the finite, intimate ways
of humankind, or came to believe that
life’s velocity held times of giving, forgiving,
and left a labyrinth of trails to use, recreate.

May we hold close to the certain Center,
may we share this miracle river bright;
may we answer as our names are called,
Let One Love embrace without restraint.

The Genuine Article

The air is redolent of all things inviting: brown sugared yams, buttery potatoes and the sweet tang of cranberries; tender fowl, golden rolls in a generous mound. Mincemeat, pumpkin and Dutch apple pies cool in the kitchen under the slightly opened window, which ushers in a gust of crisp air.

The dining room and table stun. Tall white candles draw the eye to the center of the long orchid tablecloth; an elegant flower arrangement brightens the room from atop the buffet. Each of seven white china plates, delicately rimmed with rosebuds, marks the preferred places of our family members. Crystal goblets offer a melodious ring when I run my damp finger around the rims. Music beckons, perhaps an Aaron Copland symphony resonant of a gentler, happier America or stately Brahms.

My mother wipes her hands on a floral apron. “Come to the table.”  We hold hands and pray, then eat and talk. It is very good food; it seems to taste even better because it is the holidays and everything is beautiful. The conversation is congenial and calm. The pie seems made in heaven, each bite a notation of love given and received.  

And so it often was, growing up in the family home decades ago. My parents are now gone but I recall the traditions easily, and the people with an abiding love. But it does not come back to me like a Thomas Kinkade card, bigger and more vibrant than life. And I do not pine for those years,  the meals prepared and people gathered in a certain civilized manner, the atmosphere charged with all that familial bonds awaken, both memorable and forgettable. I don’t mourn for the past. 

In other words, I am not prey to nostalgia.

The dictionary tells us nostalgia is a longing that is bittersweet, a melancholy tinged with a gauzy remnant of cheer. It is a longing for things, places and people long behind us. Nostalgia is a form of homesickness and creates a revered experience for many. Clearly, it originates from a powerful need.

But for me, nostalgia is an artificial filter, causing one’s memory to pause and re-route to a place and time that never quite existed. It is easier at times, perhaps, to ressurect the past and recall it as the one time and circumstance that was without fault than to live with what we have. We want that safe, wise, all-inclusive moment because it feels as we think life should feel, must feel: fool-proof and unshakably right and good. We want to savor again every piece of homemade pie. And we want the reassurance that all this will be available next year and the next, if only in the secret drawer of our childhood or youth. It is like an equation we can count on no matter what–but in exists only our mind’s eye, in our dreaming and desire, not in actual fact.

I suspect nostalgia keeps us tethered to a past that may not even have been what we think. Maybe some will insist “then” was somehow more attractive than “now”. But can’t it keep us set apart from the current time, these people, this moment-in-the-making of possible wonders? And could it be a sign of an impoverished soul to keep recreating a perfect (nostalgic) slice of life?

So: imagine now a smallish dining room off a smaller kitchen. The heavy oak  table is decked with a tablecloth–the same one my mother used, it’s true. Many small candles encircle the top of the old oak table, and a trail of light flickers in the living room where more candles radiant a generous glow. Brought by each Thanksgiving dinner invitee are pots and platters and bowls filled with food to please all appetites. Deserts line up like lovely prizes on the kitchen counter. There are recyclable plastic eating utensils artfully laid out beside the disposable plates.  The table is so full that I have to make room for glasses and cups as I brew coffee and tea. The Martinelli bottles are frosty cold and a daughter smiles at me as she pours sparkling apple drink.

In the living room are seats enough for about seventeen people; more people sit on the floor. We balance our plates and swap stories. We remark on our uneven lives, discuss our culture as we see it, books and music we love or ponder, projects people are working on, even the nature of God. Laughter and sated appetites cushion the growing darkness. Faces older and younger are illuminated by candle light. Something spills and towels are brought to the scene. One grandchild fusses at another.  The music is likely not heard; it is drowned out by the lull of human cacophony. 

I stand back. Here is a place full of  something good, a gathering of people of different politics, skin color, heritage, dreams, needs. We weather times that sneak up behind us to dump bad news; times that break open promising opportunities; times that whittle us down and refashion us into something more, richer. Times seemingly built of ordinary days and nights, only to surprise us again. And during festive celebrations we rest here together, the group changing as one leaves, another joins. The circle moves and breathes like a patchwork creature made of care. And the messiness that accompanies it is beautiful to me.

It is on the far, far side of artifice or perfection, this motley crew of my family, and my place is nothing fancy. The food is simple and enjoyed as a complement to our talk. The rituals are a mix of new and old, as well as flexible. I prefer it that way, not the way of the past, no matter how good it looks in retrospect. I, along with many other folks, already had those moments; that happiness mixed with life’s hardships has come and gone. Nor do I need a projection of what might be one day. The future is only a moment away, but yet to be.

It is this time I am living, this moment I am given to become intimate with and believe in, share with the others. I long for nothing but this day, this life, and all that each one can bring, no matter what it is. I am already home, here, now, and it is the genuine article, the only one I will offer when you come though my door.