right next to the spice

a few years back i saw a movie that ignited in me a deep fascination (some people in my life might call it an obsession) with india. the day the dvd was released i bought the film (a rarity for me) and immediately watched the extra features which included an indian cooking “how to.” the next day my son and i made our first indian dish, aloo gobi, carefully following each instruction.
shortly thereafter i made a trip to a local indian market and bought a few spices including an especially spicy curry powder. i wanted to learn to make more dishes, yet every recipe i found required 5-10 different spices and many steps of preparation. i felt sad. by that time i had developed a taste for the delicious meals i enjoyed at indian restaurants. i wanted to recreate them at home, yet, pushed by the pace of my sometimes-too-hurried life, i began to try to fool myself into thinking that my meals were indian if i simply doused them with the curry powder in my cupboard. forget the garam masala, the cumin seeds, fennel bulbs, and finely chopped ginger. no need for turmeric or simmering or bwana’ing (the art of making a gravy with spices and water, mixed with vegetables and legumes). curry powder made it indian, right?
some of you who know me may know that i am not a patient cook. i love to experiment and be creative in the kitchen but i mostly love sitting down to eat with the counters clean and all necessary cooking items washed and back in place. complex recipes are not my speed, they require too many ingredients (so much to take out and put away all before eating), demand far too much attention to detail, and often rely upon slow preparation and stretched out cooking time.
as my life has shifted, however, and i have developed a growing respect for results that can only be accomplished with patience, i have found my way back to some of those recipes. i have begun to try them again, contributing the time, care, and complexity of ingredients they suggest. i am noticing the way in which an honoring of the intended preparation methods requires me to change my process. requires me to make more messes. requires me to take more time. and allows me much more of a reward.
my favorite indian dish at present is chole, a chickpea curry that simmers in a gravy infused with whole cloves, cardomom pods, pepper corns, and chopped ginger root. by the time it is served the chick peas are heavy laden with the flavors of the spices. yesterday, as i ate a bowl of it, i bit into one garbanzo that tasted exactly like clove, then another that was heavily spiked with the peppery warmth of cardamom. it struck me that the complexity of this dish was so much more rewarding and interesting than the many bowls of hot curry i had made earlier in my journey. the fact that the flavors changed from one bean to the next, based on what they were near in the pan, is fascinating to me.
it makes me think about relationships. and community. and how i am flavored by the spice i am next to.
it seems to me that many of us surround ourselves with people who are just like us. when together we’re like one big dish doused in one single spice. it might be flavorful and yet it’s one dimensional. people who share our outlook on life, our beliefs or values, our socio economic status, our neighborhood, even our physical appearance make us feel so accepted, understood, and comfortable. we know how to talk to and be with these people. we speak the same languages, quite literally using the same vocabulary. we know what life in this kind of community will taste like. it’ll be familiar, comfort food safe. and that’s o.k.
it’s also o.k. to have times and spaces wherein we throw caution to the wind, stop worrying if tarragon and chile paste go together, and create something new. something we don’t know how to anticipate because it’s unique every time. a community with someone who looks nothing like us, believes things we don’t (or better yet, things we don’t understand), lives in places we haven’t traveled to, or who makes us just a wee bit uncomfortable. a community comprised of whole, strong spices. a community where each being is different and where that differentness makes a change on that which it is near.
i recently served as a panelist for a worldview forum at malone university in ohio. in preparation for the event i listened to the podcasts of previous forums. one had a christian scholar sitting next to the imam from the local muslim church. they each took five minutes to explain their faith tradition’s positions on scripture, dress, and the afterlife. it was not a debate. it was not a discussion. it was, simply, a coming together. a time of mutual sharing of space in the service of understanding where each of these very different flavors fall. and of respecting. other panels have accomplished the same objective with people on opposite sides of issues such as food production and farming, civil disobedience, and other seemingly unable-to-sit-at-the-same-table topics. i felt so impressed. and inspired. and enlightened.
as i reflect on my own community of support i realize that sometimes my fear that other spices might overwhelm my own flavor cause me to avoid them. at other times i lament over not being entirely sure how to interact with a taste highly different from mine so i hold back. i work hard, however, to push past these, and other, fears and have benefited from a wildly diverse and spicy group of friends and colleagues. beans and spices of all different types, so to speak, subtly flavoring those around them.
by opening myself to complexity, by being willing to sit with the not-like-me flavors that are next to me in the pan, my life becomes so much richer. my values are not compromised, my beliefs not necessarily shaken, the things i hold dear are not at risk. rather, my own self becomes more richly complex...more diversely seasoned. my community is simply expanded and grown and i am expanded and grown with it. the co-mingling makes the whole thing better in every way.
i’d love to know how the spices right next to you either keep you comforted and consistent in important ways or seep into you in challenging ways that change you. there is a time for both one spice curry and many flavored chole. a time for comfort communities and complex ones. if, and as, you’re willing i’d love to hear about yours...


the gift of authenticity

years ago, a woman that i admired invited me to her home for coffee. this new friend owned a business i frequented and was wise and witty. she embodied both a sturdiness and flexibility that drew me toward her. she told funny stories in which she took herself lightly and yet didn’t shy away from sharing her opinions and knowledge boldly when asked. she lived her values and gave generously of her time and resources to her community, her friends, and the world. all of this made her extremely attractive and wildly popular to those around her. given her amazing ways, i made all kinds of assumptions about what a visit to her home might be like. her abode would be warm, i was certain, and yet it would also be immaculate. books about smart topics would be laying around, heavily tagged and bookmarked, and classical music would greet me as i approached the door. it was all going to be so perfect, i imagined, and, it was. in completely different ways than i pre-supposed it would be.
when i arrived, no music was playing in the home that looked little like i had imagined. leslie’s daughter was coloring at the table and a few toys were scattered about. muffins were baking in the oven and the bowl they were mixed in sat on the counter. i was greeted with a welcome that was genuinely gracious and ushered into a home that was beautifully warm, creative, and real to the core. there was no pretense of perfection or subtle direction to notice the tidiness of her home or apologies regarding the stuff of everyday that is always out at my home but never seems to be at others. there were no all-too-familiar comments about how sorry she was that she only had time to bake muffins instead of providing a spread of home made danishes and preserves. instead, she told me plainly and without any false modesty, “i decided to give you the gift of not cleaning up. i figured if i started by having you over to my house as it normally is, maybe you’d feel welcome to do the same.” later, when the kids were using the bathroom she sent me upstairs to wash my hands. with what i can only call incredulous relief i witnessed evidence of her honesty. a stray sock, a pile of accumulated stuff outside her daughter’s door, and a few random objects strewn on the stairs after having been tossed up from below peppered the floor. the bathroom mirror had water splashed across it and there was a toothbrush on the counter. she really hadn’t cleaned up. the deep sense fondness i felt for my new friend is hard to describe. to this day i think about that sock on the floor and the instant affection born through my friend’s simple authenticity when i think about connection.
every one of us has a story about “entertaining.” our mother’s and father’s were either uptight and stressed leading up to visitor’s arrivals or perfectionistic and militant. they either had events catered or vowed to have everything home made. they made chore charts and kept everyone home to clean or did all the cleaning themselves, pointing this out to us in ways only true martyrs can. they helped us create assumptions about what it means to open our homes and our lives to others. while with them we developed deep beliefs about how we must present ourselves and our real and symbolic homes to others.
i escaped some of these ways of thinking because, somehow, my mother knew how to make an impromptu snack out of whatever was in the fridge. she was confident that the smell of popcorn was an inviting (and cheap) greeting and that what was served always came second to the environment within which it was offered. she never had a clutter free home and yet our home never felt cluttered. both of my parents welcomed people and knew that their welcome was far more important than anything else. the emphasis wasn’t on the clean, well appointed home or the fancy food, it was on welcoming the people that entered it. i never knew what an art it was to fully welcome people until i began inviting people into my own home...and office...and life. even with a history of being a part of an authentic-living community, i struggle (don’t we all?) with strong unconscious tendencies to want to present that which is tidy, perfect, well crafted, and the rest. i want to win this struggle.
a friend of mine did a stand up routine recently wherein she joked about spending all day cleaning house in preparation for visitors only to greet them, vacuum in hand, claiming to be just starting to clean up. “wow!” her guests think, “her house is this clean to begin with and she’s still cleaning?!” we want such interesting things: to have a tidy exterior and to make it seem effortless; to seem perfectly “together” and yet deeply humble and mindless regarding compliments; to have meaningful connections and yet to maintain control over our schedules and time and the content of our conversations. we wouldn’t want to appear messy, to not have it all together, to be...authentic.
i think back to that sock on the floor. in that moment it was, concretely, a symbol that my friend chose to live life fully and still invite me in. that she chose to include me then rather than to wait until she could have the house clean and still have time to connect. today, in my mind, that sock has come to represent so much more. when i feel tempted to inflate my successes in order to control what people think of me, i think about that sock. when i’m feeling low but respond to inquiries about how i am with, “life is all sunshine and rainbows thank you very much,” i think about that sock. when i feel less than and let that motivate me to miss out on experiences where that might be exposed, i think about that sock.
an author that i’ve been enjoying recently says, “if you want your community to be marked by radical honesty, by risky, terrifying, utlimately redemptive truth-telling, you must start telling your truth first.” (shauna niequist, bittersweet)
i want that. i really do. i want that kind of community and yet feel tempted to hide the dirty sock behind any number of distractions in order to direct your attention where i’d rather have it...on the clean and folded laundry rather than the soiled and scattered less than perfect parts of myself, my home, my life. in so doing i tell not only you that cleaning up is more important than you are, but i tell any children in my life the same. and they believe me and tell their kids and they tell two friends and so on and so on and...
may we all take small risks, as we are able, to invite people in today. not when the house is clean or my reputation is sparkling or i can pull up in a new car or i’m feeling prepared; but now. and may you and i welcome the messes that are part of being authentic. part of being real. part of being.


"that" person

it seems that i have become “that” person. 
when people see me coming they sheepishly try to put their phones away without my noticing. they apologize for their last several status updates or explain why they were so hyper-active on twitter the day before. if they have their headset in their ear they wince, making their most sheepish “i’m caught” face.
i feel sad because, of all the people i do not want to be, it is “that” person.
so, today i want to write about why i care so much about our full fledged love for (and consumption of) all things digital in the hopes of putting forth that which i am for (instead of that which i appear to be against). i want to expose my deepest passion. the one that drives me even harder than my frustration with screens and the way they numb us out and dumb us down. my real love is this...life. relational life. intimate, raw, unknown-ahead-of-time experience and existence. full, real, and true relationships with ones’ self, ones’ God, and ones’ community. life. in capital letters. LIFE.
life, to be satisfactorily lived, requires attention. this is why i care about the lack of attention we pay to our non typing or seeing senses, why it matters to me that we sometimes cut experiences short in order to type about them, and this is why i am passionate about calling our technology habits to our conscious awareness. it’s not that i’m anti-sharing. i don’t necessarily even have issues with self promotion. i simply feel sad when i experience a stronger draw to my glowing computer screen than to my fully embodied life. when i feel a desire to do something simply so that i can tell someone i did it. basically, when the responses to my status updates become more important to me than the activity i engaged in.
many people i encounter hold back, feeling that they don’t know how to accomplish what pop psychology calls “living their best life.” experiencing defeat before they begin, they sit back and wait until the “just right” opportunity presents itself. they don’t do the small things that might not matter to anyone other than themselves. they feel paralyzed by fears of getting it wrong.
to these people i say, never mind living your best life...just live a real life. a messy life. a life filled with “i can’t believe i did that crazy/silly/mundane thing i’ve always wanted to do but never quite had the courage to do” moments. like going to a movie by yourself. like playing in a fountain. like dancing, alone, at a concert. take yourself out to dinner. or take someone else. maybe someone you hardly know. go into an asian market just to look and smell. buy horchata at a mexican grocery and try to speak in spanish. walk slowly. walk a labyrinth. write a letter. read your favorite book from high school. join a team. take a class. daydream. go ice blocking. and please, by all means, remind me to keep doing the same.
what i’m saying is this, update your status to your hearts’ content. tweet ‘til the cows come home. text away. my hope is simply that you’re doing these things on your breaks from doing the really important thing...bravely, boldly, and wildly living the real life that happens in between typing things up.