By Cordelia Fitzgerald (Rated G)
“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” -Blaise Pascal, Pensees.
Michael Pollan, in his book Cooked, writes, “Conversation, I soon came to realize, was the best way to deal with the drudgery of chopping onions.” In this heavily researched book, he explores the topic of the supremacy of old, time-tried cooking in contrast to the ever-increasingly time-saving and processed microwave dinners. While I enthusiastically endorse this view, I think he needs to extend his approbation to the vegetable preparation as well. Perhaps it’s the very transition into “convenience” meals that drives the discontent with everyday, “mundane” tasks that is illustrated here. Did our ancestors view chopping onions as drudgery – drudgery only to be relieved by conversation?
I am reminded of the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Her books, delightful and marvelously descriptive (thanks to long years of portraying the world for her blind sister), contain an inordinate amount of cooking. Food preparation was intimately entwined in everyday life due to its necessity for survival. Each bit of that survival process, from slaughtering pigs to making candles, was accepted as essential and normal; there was no option to skip and order out if making bread from scratch seemed too much. And it was also a family affair; not only were these tasks ubiquitous, but everyone participated, leaving a scenario in which (1) the work must be done and (2) shirking was not an option.
At this point, someone in this situation has two options: to grin and bear it (although grumbling is far more likely to occur and probably the most common result), or embrace the process and enjoy it. Modern society seems to follow the first option most closely, as we cram every minute of our lives with images, stories, sounds, and craziness, drowning out the monotony of unwanted tasks lest we have a moment to ourselves to actually just be. They unknowingly act against the fundamental good that happens when we participate in these activities by expecting of them only what they are.
A meal, for instance, is a social activity, the society of which is preserved today only rarely for meetings at restaurants. This socialization should not be limited to only the eating of food, however, but should also be connected to its preparation. Communal work invites camaraderie: the strong bond of providing for each other and the community that springs from working at a common task. Chopping onions is not drudgery, but rather an important part of the family routine that, when done properly (in community, if possible), provides the perfect opportunity to foster relationships. Some tears might even result.
This philosophy should not be restricted to food, though – it is universally applicable. A coworker recently sounded an all-too-familiar refrain, strongly emphasizing her inability to stay at home with her children; she would “go crazy.” Her energy, her children’s energy, the boredom at home … all these combine to create an atmosphere which modernity deems incompatible with life. Having only been a stay-at-home child (and not a mother), I can’t refute this from experience, but I do know that until the world taught me differently, I did not lose my mind from boredom. Well, perhaps I did, but it was the sort of boredom not even to be remedied by all the busybody distractions of the world. In other words, I had all the resources before me to keep me sane without leaving the house, and yet I still chose to be bored, and all the trivial pursuits of the crazy world would have made no difference. There really is no such thing as forced tedium or boredom in normal circumstances (excepting the extreme ones, of course – I won’t incriminate myself with reckless generalizations), since it is difficult to fully distance oneself from all that is interesting. But wait, you say, it might be interesting to you, but it isn’t for me! No. I speak here of things that objectively have interest which can be discovered or not as the fancy takes.
Put another way, I believe there are two forms of beauty – active and passive. Passive beauty is that which is obviously and immediately attractive, such as a painting or song or masterful cinematography. Active beauty, or beauty that requires action, must be sought, like the beauty of chopping onions. It uses a rhythmic motion which (if you’re as bad and slow at slicing onions as I) can be calming. Lest it be too calming, however, it simultaneously attacks your eyes in an amazing defense mechanism which always reduces me, at least, to tears and laughter. Here we are, the only creature to build hospitals and write code and control our appetites, and we are reduced to crying by the inanimate vegetable we are preparing to eat! What irony! If that fails to amuse us, we cannot escape the fact that we are physically caring for others, nourishing their bodies and their souls, too, if we choose to make it a social event. For how long the kitchens were the center of the home before that core of work and joy and suffering was lost!
If we choose to hate chopping onions, we will eventually succeed, as Aslan says (sort of) in The Magician’s Nephew. But if we instead elect to embrace this ritual and throw ourselves into it joyfully – to actively choose to see beauty – there’s no reason it shouldn’t work as well as hating it does. The Catholic Church, in her wisdom, typifies this ideal. The liturgical season rolls ever over the fabric of the geological seasons in rich, feast-dense folds. Those of us who hate the cold (like me) still herald its coming as a wonderful forerunner of Christmas. There is always another season, another feast, another celebration in the calendar of the Church. She sees joy in every day and climate while acknowledging the sadness, too. The feast/famine paradox is rife: the joy of Christ’s birth twinned with the solemnity of preparing for His Second Coming, or Ordinary Time not so ordinary with the festal triumph of tortured martyrs or the dread and awe and triumph of Christ as King. We hope in the shock and misery of His Death as the muddy season ends, to rejoice at His Rising in the spring as flowers burst forth only a few days later.
As Lent now approaches, it is good to keep in mind that it is a joyful season, too; each pang of fasting hunger or blossom peeping through the long slow waste of winter or crispy morsel of fried fish is a reminder that these mundane things were special enough to be created by God and maybe even experienced in His human form, and delighted in. Lent preaches the joy of enough – the opposite of the dragging heaviness of too much Stuff, too much Crazy, too much Distraction. Actively choosing joy in the quietness of a simple task or interaction is a way to reorient ourselves to beauty, so that we can encounter each situation fully, while joyfully uncovering its true beauty.