Sunday, February 27, 2011

Forgiving the Unforgiveable: The Easy Path of Retribution, The Hard Road of Compassion

Four people were murdered last week off the coast of Somalia; American civilians cruising in hostile waters.  Somali pirates are an organized criminal gang, taking hostages and sometimes killing their captives.  These are hideous crimes, and if there were any justice in the world...

Then what?  What would be just, and who am I to decide it?  The primary motive for these actions appears to be ransom, but according to some analyses, there are deeper forces at play.  The Somalis claim that European companies and governments are paying firms that use mafia connections and bribes to dump their toxic waste into the ocean just offshore of the Horn of Africa; there certainly seems to be some evidence to support these claims.  If your fishing stocks are destroyed, your neighbors are dying of strange diseases, your babies are suffering terrible deformities and you think you know why but feel powerless to stop it, you might react in rage and frustration, too.

I have not done much research into this topic, and my intention here isn't to exonerate murderous thugs, but the least believable bad guys are usually those with no motive greater than their own malfeasance.  It is easy to rush to retribution when a crime occurs, easier still when we can quickly assign an individual crooked will to the act.  Perhaps this is why there is such a political will to find a body to put on trial whenever things begin to fall apart, lest anyone be inclined to look too deeply at the cultural institutions and systemic corruptions that lead to violence and disorder.   And when the bad guy seems to be just bad luck, illness or accident, some of us flail around magnifying our misery in an attempt to assign blame.  Is karmic justice only appealing when we think we will be rewarded for our goodness and our enemies will suffer in the next life?  What happens when we hurt, do we critically examine our place in the cycle of suffering?  Do we tend to pity, or to compassion?

I lay awake the night I read about the pirates' victims, searching for the gift.  Compassion is not pity; to feel sorry for someone in his misfortune, and grateful not to be in his shoes, is to see myself as apart from his suffering.  Compassion is to embrace another's misery, to redeem it within myself and to recognize that I am part of the peace and the war in the world; there is always more that I can give.

There have been hard times in my life; I wrote the following after one of them:

     I don't need this story to be true, for it to be true.

     In the eternity of my life there is another life.  There is a life that requires redemption.  It is a life full of misery and suffering and horrific violence and loss.  It is a life of betrayal and cruelty.  It is a life a woman, a mother, me, witnessing the wheeling of life's woes like ravenous raptors, greedy for a feast.  It is a life of abandonment and pain.
    Perhaps it is in the past.  Perhaps it is in the future.  Perhaps it is in all time, along with this life.
    This life of joy and fulfillment.  This life of reward, welling up, bursting into constant bloom unsought.  A life of plenty.  A life of motherhood and partnership and self-actualization, where blessings rain down in blinding squalls out of a crystal sky.
    My son is aware of the other life.  Perhaps he has lived it too.  It is the journey of this life to redeem the other, to forgive and forgive, to carry its weight and leave peace in its wake.  To be in this moment of plenty with grateful and gracious acknowledgment of pain.  My son is teaching me, watching me, testing me at this task, still unsure if I will manage it.  Will I manage it?  Can I roll away the wheel and reveal the world, cleansed?  It is not for escaping; there is no escape, but in presence it can be remade.
    To this task do I apply myself, and in its effort there is only liberation.

If you would like to share your stories of compassion, experienced or expressed, please do.

Monday, February 21, 2011


I have been reading.  This is a feat.  First, John goes to bed with the baby.  Then, Wallace falls asleep on the couch.  Then I pour a glass of scotch and stay up too late.  I just finished "Son of A Witch," by Gregory Maguire.  Being, acting, living; realizing oneself.  I didn't like it quite as much as "Wicked", but it seems like I find an affirmation of the truths in my life at every turn.

Now I am reading "Liar's Poker" by Michael Lewis, and I can't put it down (except to write, which is the indulgence of this blogging business).  While the opening gambit of this memoir had my full attention ("The King of Wall Street" versus the King of the Traders in a ten million-dollar game of chicken), it is the fact that the author originally majored in art history that really won me over. 

You might guess that I majored in art history.  I did, but I also majored in economics, which makes the whole tale particularly close to my heart (the book is about his experience as a bond salesman with Salomon Brothers during the 1980s).  I loved, and still love, economic theory, but I was appalled at the way it is taught.  I think there is an open conspiracy to make people utterly apathetic towards the "dismal science;" just look at that moniker!  Who is going to embrace a subject with such an epithet?  And so this most fascinating and fundamental of human studies becomes relegated to the pocket-protector set, or an incidental activity on the eroded path toward the mud-wrestling pit of money making for its own sake.  (There are lots of good folks in finance, I know this from personal and professional experience.  But there is no more competitive and ruthless game than the money game, except maybe politics, and we won't go into my opinions on that.)  And as for art history, wonderful stuff, but the path towards professional professorship is equally eroded and I wasn't interested in committing to developing proficiency in German.

I had a brief dalliance with a finance career.  I don't think it was about the money (I had been genuinely interested in the concept of equities analysis since grade school), but it is hard to say.  Certainly I was paid enough as a little guy in a tiny firm to justify the work (if that's what it was), but not to tolerate the culture.  I'd been through some interviews, at school and on the side, where I had been yelled at and bullied and told how to dress and shown New York skyline views from corner offices by men whose egos perched on the sills of those picture windows; that sat about as well with me as you might expect but I still harbored the belief that it was possible to be a maverick and excel.  Maybe it was, but not for me.  I finally quit, moved on to horticulture, and then moved on to parenthood.  It is in this last role that my talents are most fully realized and the rewards most tangible, so I will leave the what-ifs for another time. 

Some people are quick studies.  Not me.  I circle around a problem until I have worn a groove in the floor; sometimes until the vultures are circling me.  I can look back on many a moment when I have played the fool most unwittingly.  But I can change direction.  Today I mean to honor the quitters.  There are so many examples of this, but here's just one: Two women I know had anticipated certain experiences and outcomes for the birth of their children, but found themselves in quite different situations as the interminable forces of labor progressed.  Assessing their emotions in the moment, freed from the dominance of the intellectual iron fist, they made unprecedented (for them) decisions.  In one case it was accepting Pitocin after several days of exhausting and intermittent labor.  In another case, a woman who has had four unassisted home births decided to go to the hospital, and ultimately have a Caesarian, with her fifth child.

And that's what living is all about, to me.  So there's some expected outcome, like a junior high superlative in the yearbook (most likely to be successful, most likely to have kids, most likely to wheeze out in a nondescript nothingness of dedicated drudgery...); the power is in rejecting that.  Or in accepting it, even, and then turning away from it if it doesn't fit.  Our path is our own, and it is always evolving.  The trick is in seeing that evolution and responding to it, not fighting it; in looking for the nourishment.

I would love to hear people's stories of quitting.  Quitting relationships, jobs, school, beliefs, whatever.  Tell me about following your path.

Instead of Deep Thoughts, A Party

I had planned to wax philosophical in praise of quitters and to pontificate on the financial markets today, and I may yet.  However, it is already Monday and I haven't completed the thought.  This is because I went to a mother-to-be ceremony yesterday for a dear friend.  

For the gift, we had been asked to bring some recipes that make us think of mothers, and to include some anecdotes. I brought two. Here they are, exactly as they appear in the compendium:

I know it might seem like cheating to include a recipe from a cookbook, but this one has a double mom-story for me. After Wallace was born, Megan and Toby and Rosalee and Robin came over to cook us dinner. Along with polenta and veggies, they made a wonderful soda bread. I asked Megan for the recipe, and she presented me with a lovely hand-written note entitled “G-Ma Clark's Soda Bread.” Naturally, I assumed I had been made privy to a wonderful family recipe from a revered matriarch.

Then I came across it in a cookbook:) Now Megan's a mom, too!

  • 4 T (½ stick), unsalted butter
  • 3 C unbleached, all-purpose flour
  • 1 ½ tsp salt
  • 1 T aluminum-free baking powder
  • 1 t baking soda
  • ¾ C sugar
  • 1 ½ C (I use less, more like ¾ C) dried currants
  • 1 ¾ C buttermilk
  • 2 eggs, well-beaten
  • 2 T unsalted butter, melted and cooled to room temperature
  • 1 T caraway seed (optional)

  • Smear 2 T of butter on the bottom and sides of a 10 inch cast-iron skillet. Line the bottom of the skillet with a circle of waxed paper (I usually don't bother with this).
  • Preheat oven to 350 F.
  • Sift the dry ingredients together in a large bowl. Add the currants and toss well to coat.
  • In another bowl, whisk together the buttermilk, eggs, and melted butter. Add this to the dry ingredients along with the caraway seeds. Blend but do not overmix.
  • Spoon the batter into the prepared skillet, and smooth the top gently with a spatula. Dot the top with the remaining 2 T butter.
  • Place the skillet in the oven and bake until the bread is puffed and golden brown, about 1 hour. Cool in the skillet for 10 minutes and serve warm, or transfer to a wire rack to continue cooling. 

    This one amuses me.  It is hard to read in the scan, but the notes that my grandmother included were some pointers on how to manage the kitchen at the start of a cooking project, and instructions on making perfect meatballs.  There is also a recipe for Sarah's favorite meatloaf, which I did not include.  I have no recollection of a favorite meatloaf.
    This is the recipe box she put them in:

    My pithy observations on matters of high finance and contrarian decision-making will have to wait for another day.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Lentil Challenge

The day of our wedding reception dawned clear and warm, with a big Autumn sun that would wax fat and turn the world golden under an azure sky.  Tent, caterer, bands, photographers, parking, toilets; everything was organized.  Even our seedy neighbors who blighted the pastoral paradise with their yelling and their trash-filled yard had gone away for the weekend (which never happened, until that most amazing and unreal day when, right before my first baby was born, they abandoned the trailer and it was torn down).  And then the septic tank overflowed, and how could it not?  Light doesn't make much sense without the dark.    
Here we are, forgetting our lines.
And just for fun and memories, here's the trailer.  I think the free fridge in the front yard really makes the picture.
Perhaps that is a petty example, when considering the magnitude of the world's troubles.  On the other hand, it would be pretentious and a bit insensitive to philosophize on the virtues of miseries that are not my own, and there is little in my life that would qualify as miserable (although whatever was wrong with my digestive system during my first round of chemo comes pretty close).  I feel like I have new knowledge daily of how good my life is, and how good I can feel, because I have received the gift of feeling bad.  Occasionally little things feel hard, but then they are clearly so little.

Lentils are also little and hard.  How, you might ask, are lentils a logical component of this post?  Well, one of the little things that sometimes feels challenging is the food budget.  By American standards, we just make it.  We have shelter and food, the provisioning of which requires most of our resources.  Having shelter and food, however, makes us beyond wealthy.  Leaving aside the ideal of noble poverty, there is a very good case to be made for the real virtues of focusing on a comfortable subsistence without excess.  When I can bring my attention to problem of survival, without panic, I am present.  Furthermore, composing meals to my standards (food must have vitality, nutrition and aesthetic appeal, which generally means it must be organic in essence, alive, and varied) with limited financial means requires a lot of energy and creativity.

One easy way to enhance my kitchen creativity is to exploit the creativity of others, hence the lentil challenge.  I buy French lentils in 25# bags and store them in a five gallon pail with a screw-on Gamma lid.  I pay a couple bucks a pound for the lentils.  In addition to all the fabulous ways one can cook lentils, they make a terrific sprouted salad - just soak them overnight and then rinse them and drain them regularly until they sprout.  Add lemon juice, celery, olive oil and salt and pepper.  Done.  I would like to share some of my favorite lentil recipes, as well as a few I have picked up from others.  The challenge is, can you add to this collection?  Please share your recipes or links!

With these and all soup recipes, I make double or triple the quantity and freeze the leftovers:

From New Vegetarian by Celia Brooks Brown

Lentil, Coconut and Wilted Spinach Soup

  • 2/3 C French Lentils
  • 4 C stock
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 2 large garlic cloves, chopped
  • 2 tsp ground cumin
  • 1 C coconut milk (I substitute 1 C organic unsweetened flaked coconut, as I prefer the texture and taste, and to avoid the gums that are typically added to canned coconut milk)
  • 2 T dark soy sauce (this really depends on the saltiness of your stock base - I have definitely over-salted this soup before by using a salty base and 3T of soy)
  • 4 handfuls of baby spinach, about 2 C
  • sea salt and fresh ground pepper
Rinse the lentils (soak overnight in water with apple cider vinegar for maximum nutrition), then put in large saucepan with stock.  Add one C water if using flaked, rather than canned, coconut.  Boil for 10 minutes, then add remaining ingredients, except for spinach.  Reduce heat and simmer for 20-30 minutes, until lentils are tender. Put small handful of spinach in each bowl, and add soup.  The soup wilts the spinach.

This one cooks with lemon, which adds a nice lightness to a winter soup.

From Williams-Sonoma Soup, by Diane Rossen Worthington

Lentil Soup
  • 2 T olive oil
  • 1 yellow onion, chopped fine
  • 1 celery stalk, thinly sliced
  • 1 carrot, thinly sliced (peeled if not organic)
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 2 tsp curry powder
  • 1 C canned diced tomatoes, with juice.  (If you are concerned with BPA in canned tomatoes, as I am, there are some alternatives.  One option is the tetra-pak types in the cardboard boxes; Pomi makes them and so does Trader Joe's.  If you have frozen or canned of your own, great.  I use a mix of Bonaturae tomato paste, which comes in glass jars, and reconstituted sundried tomatoes, chopped.)
  • 1 1/2 C French lentils
  • 6 C stock
  • 1 lemon, sliced
  • 1 C coarsely chopped fresh spinach, kale, or other hearty green.
  • sea salt and fresh ground pepper
Rinse the lentils and soak overnight in water with apple cider vinegar for maximum nutrition. In a large saucepan over medium-high heat, warm the oil.  Add the onion, celery, carrot and bay and saute in softened, about five minutes.  Add garlic and curry powder and stir until fragrant, about one minute more. Add tomatoes, lentils, stock and lemon slices.  Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat.  Reduce the heat, cover partially (I do this by propping the lid open with a chop-stick) and cook, stirring occasionally, until lentils are tender, about 30 minutes.  Discard the lemon slices and bay leaf. Just before serving, add the greens and stir in to wilt.  Serve immediately.

This one is from At Home With Ann
She got it from Oh She Glows   
Protein Power Goddess Bowl
  • 2 cups uncooked brown rice (or however much you want to make)
  • 1.5-2 cups uncooked lentils (you need 4 cups cooked lentils)
  • 1/2 red onion
  • 4 garlic cloves, peeled and diced
  • 1 red/yellow/orange pepper, thinly sliced
  • 1 tomato, chopped
  • 1 cup Tahini lemon garlic dressing
  • 8-10 sundried tomatoes, sliced (optional)
  • 2 large handfuls of mixed greens (or spinach)
  • 1/2 cup parsley, chopped
  • Lemon wedges and olives, for garnish (optional)
  • Kosher salt and pepper, to taste (I think I used about 1/4-1/2 tsp kosher salt in the sauté)
  • 1/2 tbsp olive oil for sautéing
Directions: Cook lentils and rice according to package directions, rinse with cold water, strain, and set aside. (Soak them overnight in water with some apple cider vinegar to get maximum nutrition from them) In a large skillet, add in the oil and heat to low-medium temperature. Now add in the onion, garlic, red pepper, salt, pepper, and optional sundried tomatoes. Sauté for about 5 minutes over low-medium heat. Now add in the cooked, drained, and rinsed 4 cups of lentils and stir well. Cook for another few minutes. Add in 1 cup of tahini lemon garlic dressing and stir well. Cook until it starts to bubble and then remove from heat. Add in 2 large handfuls of greens and parsley and stir well again. Portion cooked brown rice into the bowl(s) and then scoop the sauté lentil mixture overtop of the rice. Garnish with olives and a lemon wedge if preferred. Makes about 6 large portions. Dressing: Ingredients:
  • 1/4 cup tahini
  • 1-2 garlic cloves
  • 1/2 cup fresh lemon juice
  • 1/4 cup nutritional yeast
  • 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 tsp kosher salt
  • Fresh ground black pepper, to taste
Directions: In a food processor, process all ingredients until smooth. Makes about 1.5 cups.

Here is another one, from Buckwheat Blossom: Bengali Lentil Soup from Hope's Edge by Frances Moore Lappe and Anna Lappe; serves 6 1 cup red lentils 4 cups water 1/2 tsp. turmeric 1 cup canned tomatoes 1 1/2 tsp. salt 2 T. vegetable oil 1/2 tsp. cumin seeds 1/2 tsp. yellow or black mustard seeds 2 tsp. jalapeno pepper (1/2 small), seeded 4 cups onions (2 large), finely sliced 5 tsp. garlic (3 to 4 cloves), sliced 1/2 cup fresh cilantro leaves, chopped (I don't have these handy in the winter, so I added a bit of coriander instead with great results) Add lentils to water in a large saucepan. Add turmeric and stir. Bring to a boil and then simmer for 20 minutes until the lentils are soft. Add tomatoes and salt, and cook for a few minutes longer. Reduce heat. Meanwhile, heat oil in a skillet. Add the cumin seeds and mustard seeds and saute until fragrant, for just a few minutes. Cook at a low heat and be careful not to burn the seeds. Add jalapeno, onions, and garlic, and cook until golden brown (about 10 minutes). Add onion mixture to lentils and cook for a few minutes longer, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat. Add fresh cilantro leaves to the lentil soup and cover to steep for a minute. Serve while hot. For a final touch, scoop a dollop of fresh yogurt on top.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Safety Last

"Drive Reckless."  This is the admonishment I receive from my father when I drive any distance.  My version is something along the lines of "Don't Crash."  Another variation on the theme is "Don't kill yourself"; that one I usually use with the kids.  Of course, these are all silly things to say in the literal sense; what is meant is "I trust your choices and I won't try to steer them (even if sometimes I wish I could), but I care what happens to you."  It is dangerous to blunt someone's instincts with our anxiety; self-consciousness interferes with our ability to navigate the changing terrain of our environment.  The mother mountain goat does not worry her kids up the rocks; their footing in the landscape will not be intuitive, and thus not "safe," if they do not internalize it with unencumbered visceral experience.  Try to type, or drive, while thinking about every aspect of the movement - once the left brain engages in the task the whole thing becomes an awkward robot dance (trust me, I have lots of experience with awkward robot dances).
"You do not go to sea to be safe." (Neither John nor I can remember or find the attribution for this quote, so if you know it, please comment!).   When sailing, it is not possible, safe or fun to stop things from changing constantly, it is a fluid process that keeps me in the present.  Life's rewards stem from risk-taking, and the desire to order the universe to be "manageable," or static, can rob me of the only true security I have: that I am myself, in this moment.  In The Lord of the Rings, (which I consider to be a great work of literature and philosophy, and not just a fairy story), Frodo leaves the Shire because of imminent danger.  But he leaves the haven of Rivendell, on a quest of almost certain death and disaster, because he recognizes that the great wheel is turning and any security in stasis is illusory.  Initially shrinking from the task, he complains to Gandalf that he wishes he did not have the ring and its responsibilities, to which the wizard replies, "So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us."

It wouldn't have been as compelling a story if Tolkien had been writing about how nice everything is all the time; I don't find my current situation to involve a cosmic struggle with the forces of evil and the tragedy of power.  Still, I imagine you take my point.  I value the bourgeois comforts of a glass of bourbon and roaring fire, don't misunderstand me, but when I am experiencing the joy of that pleasure it is a joy of that moment, rather than a need to ensure that all my future moments possess that character.  I have found that there is some joy in all moments, whether it is obvious or not, and I would not sacrifice the depth of that realization for anything.  I would not have it had I not had the privilege of some genuine challenges. 

That has been one of the greatest gifts of this dramatic curve in my path: to find out how much beauty there is in dark times, and how much reward there is in letting go of the pretense that I possess control over anything other than my reactions.  It's no good trying to be safe.