Friday, December 24, 2010

Three challenges for the New Year. Yes, it is that time already.

I’m in a mood this evening. There could be any number of reasons for it. It’s Christmas Eve. My oldest daughter isn’t home for the holiday. My niece has suddenly grown into this little girl who carries on conversations with me. The neighbor’s dog hasn’t stopped barking since I got home this evening. The sun has not been out in days. Maybe it’s all these things. Or none.

Don’t worry—it’s not a bad mood. Not even a melancholic or nostalgic mood. It’s more a mood of sudden determination that has been months in the making. Within the next week, 2011 will be upon us (I have decided that the real New Year is on December 21st, the winter solstice, but no one is asking my opinions on such things). With the New Year comes resolutions. Face it—even deciding to not make a resolution is a resolution, so there’s no getting around it. But if resolution leaves a bad taste in your mouth, let me offer an alternative. This year, let us issue challenges rather than resolutions. The human race is a competitive sort, so when someone throws down the gauntlet we respond. Hell, sometimes we respond with no provocation whatsoever.

So, I will now issue any of you reading this, three challenges. I dare you to accept them. Double dog dare you. Here we go:

Challenge number one: Stop waiting for the perfect time. It’s here. Right now. If you wait, it will pass and it won’t come again. So, next time you want to go or do or say something, do not say ‘It’s not the right time.’ Just go or do or say it. Especially if you need to say I love you. Or I’m sorry. Or I forgive you. Really—those are kind of big ones.

Challenge number two: Pursue joy. Even if it’s just a teeny, tiny, miniscule piece of joy. If you can’t be a ballerina, you can still turn on the music and dance like you’re at the Bolshoi. Afraid someone will see you? No—hope they do! You just might inspire them to make a little piece of their own joy come true. And wouldn’t the world be a happier place if we all pushed each other towards delight rather than towards antagonism?

Challenge number three: Follow your bliss. Joseph Campbell knew what he was talking about:

…if you do follow your bliss you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. When you can see that, you begin to meet people who are in your field of bliss, and they open doors to you. I say, follow your bliss and don't be afraid, and doors will open where you didn't know they were going to be.

This is not the same as pursuing joy. Joy is the sensation of light breaking through after a long storm. Bliss is the sensation of coming home. You just know you’re where you belong. Can’t take the time to pursue the path you were meant to be on? See challenge number one. Too afraid to make a change? See challenge number two.

That’s it. Three simple tasks. Who’s in? Let me know. I will gladly offer words of support (or, if you’re of such a nature, I can offer glib comments that provoke you to action. You decide). I only ask that you return the favor.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Enchiladas, the color of taste, and a couple of great songs

On occasion, some of my posts result from challenges issued by my students, the proverbial glove tossed on the ground in front of me. This is one of those posts. It involves enchiladas and the color of taste.

I sometimes assign an essay to my students to describe their favorite food. The early drafts usually come back short and simple, but it becomes a canvas for revision, for working on details and using all five senses to bring the food to life for the reader.

One student this semester wrote about enchiladas. But not just any enchiladas—her enchiladas. The recipe is top secret stuff, the If-I-tell-you-I-have-to-kill-you-secret stuff. Her original piece was fine, but I began pushing her to add in the details that would make us beg her for a plate of the enchiladas. She’s a pragmatic student who doesn’t hesitate to tell me she likes staying in her box just fine, so she was hesitant to embellish what was, after all, an essay on food. I encouraged her to play with her writing, going so far as to ask, “What color do your enchiladas taste like?”

Long story short, several weeks after this conversation began, this student appeared at my office door with a pan of her enchiladas. Handing them over to me, she said, “You eat them and tell me what color they taste like.”

In other news: I love my job.

I’ll just lay it out right now—I couldn’t come up with a color to describe the taste. The actual color, however, is gold. Gold with various lighter and darker veins of the same color running through it, punctuated with moments of russet and small shots of ebony. When I took the pan from her, I was surprised by the heft and weight of it. And while I can’t tell you what color it tastes like, I can certainly tell you it smelled like the Hallelujah chorus. I detected the scent of cheddar cheese, ground beef, and—yes, yes, there it was—green chile. As any respectable New Mexican can tell you, the way to Heaven is paved with green chile.

Savannah and I served ourselves a helping immediately. As I lifted the first bite to my mouth, I reminded her, “Ok, I have to come up with the perfect way to describe this.”

And so, of course, it was Savannah who got it. She took a bite, closing her eyes and letting that wicked, wonderful, witty mind of hers take over. She swallowed, took another bite. Then she pronounced, “They taste like a good folk song.”

And she is so right. These enchiladas embody everything folk music does—history, heritage, and life. Some of reason the analogy of a folk song fits is apparent—the dish consists of food like cheese, corn tortillas, ground beef, black beans and pinto beans, and the green chile sauce. There’s nothing uppity about this, no exotic ingredients, no extravagant cuisine or unidentifiable elements. And it’s the structure of the piece, the layers that fold into one another like the instruments of folk music do in a song. This is not techno dance music, hip-hop, R&B, or even classical. It isn’t flashy or fancy or rich or dull. It’s solid food.

In the Navajo tradition, there are two types of rain—the easy female rain that falls gently and soaks into the earth, nourishing the plants and trees. Then there is the male rain, the torrents that crash to the ground and race along, gathering in the arroyos and speeding away. If food can have a gender, this dish is feminine. It insists you slow down and take a seat. The textures of the enchiladas are playful—the smoothness of the cheese, the easy crunch of the corn tortillas, and the roughness of the ground beef remind me of home, of the chaos of the dinner table and the ritual of family.

And that is the tastiest part of this dish. To know someone made these enchiladas with me in mind makes this so much more than just food. This simple pan of enchiladas reminded me that eating is not merely about survival. It admonished me for allowing my food to come fast and easy, prepared by people I don’t know and who don’t know me, communing with chemicals whose names I can’t pronounce, and never once attempting to answer the age-old questions “Who killed the pork chops? What price bananas?” Perhaps many of us have lost the ancient memory of spiritual union that food represents-- the yin and yang of preparing the meal for others, taking in the meal prepared for us, feeding body and soul. Bona Vida.

I think I know what her secret ingredient is.