Country Mice and An Elegant Waiter

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A couple years ago I lived in Poland and taught English with a team of energetic, fun young people: Jewel, Sarah, Dervin, and Marlin. It was Marlin’s birthday, and he wanted us five to celebrate with a concert at the Philharmonic, and dinner afterward.

We chose Chianti Tratoria, a restaurant that I would never have chosen for a group dinner because it looked so romantic and other-worldly. Like, way out of my league. I’d walked past it for several years, always wistfully looking in the door, reading the menu, admiring the candles in the tall hurricane vases on the step. It’s the setting for the scene I describe in this devotional. But it was always out of reach, never for me. Until that night when we walked down the steps off Foksal Street and into the basement restaurant.

It was all so elegant and classy that we felt like country bumpkins, but the staff was gracious and welcoming. Our waiter was Michael, and he was everything a waiter should be. He answered all our questions about the menu and consulted the chef about the latest updates. When he knew we weren’t ordering wine, he swooped off our goblets. But one elbow caught a goblet and it crashed on the tile floor, and Michael swore so cheerfully that it made us laugh.

We were mission volunteers, poor as church mice, and ordered the most frugal entrees, and split some orders, but even so, it was delectable. My seafood risotto was perfection, except I couldn’t manage the baby octopus, so Marlin ate it for me.

Michael kept checking up on us, chatting whenever he could, maybe wanting to practice his English. He was elegant, and friendly, but not invasive. At the end of the meal, we told Michael that we weren’t going to order dessert with our coffee ( we didn’t tell him we couldn’t afford it). Then he cajoled the chef into giving us a plate of dessert samples for us to share.

While Michael was out of ear shot, Sarah said we should write him a thank you note to leave on the table. Someone had a piece of paper, and we all signed it with little notes.

It had been a most delightful time. On the way home, we kept talking about Michael and how much he’d done to make it a splendid time. Jewel wrote a review on Trip Adviser and mentioned his great service.

A couple weeks later, our little group was in Warsaw again. It was dark and rainy, and we were sloshing down the sidewalk, hurrying to make the train. We were passing Chianti, and just as it was behind us, I jerked back: Michael! He was outside the door having a smoke. We had recognized each other at the same time.

“Hey, good to see you! I remember you! Thanks for the note you all left for me–and you left a review on Trip Advisor too!” We were delighted to see him, told him we’ll be back when we can, and kept walking to the train in the rain.

I love remembering the delight of that evening, and of the serendipitous meeting in the rain. We were country mice, and he was an elegant waiter, but we impacted each other in ways that lasted longer than the meal.

These days, I’m not so good at enjoying people who are less than elegant in places of business. But I think I should try to notice the good things in them too, and affirm them. They work hard–at least some of them do–and they deserve recognition, and my world expands significantly when I engage with them.

Join me?

The Work of My Hands

Most of my day job requires sitting at a desk and working on a computer. It’s all good, and I enjoy it except when I get tired of being in an office by myself, when I go trotting up and down the halls looking for someone to talk with.

When I get home in the evenings, I want to avoid the computer. I want to do something with my hands, something tactile and less flat than paper and a monitor. Recently, that compulsion became very intense. I felt a deep, driving need to make a big layer cake. I’d never made a caramel nut cake, but I found a recipe on Pinterest, and simply had to make it. It was going to be a big, fancy cake, and I was going to take it to the fellowship dinner at church. Because whenever I make a lot of food, it becomes a small problem when my housemate and I can’t or shouldn’t eat all of it.

I bought the nuts one evening. The next evening, I made the caramel sauce for the icing and toasted the nuts in butter. The next evening, I made the four cake layers. That took me to Saturday, when I made the icing and put the layers together. I used to make small layer cakes to sell, and it was fun to find that my fingers still knew the motions.The steps of making it aren’t important here but they demonstrate how it was something to do with my creative, nervous energy every night and that I had to strategize how to manage the project. People who think single women have lots of time to do stuff don’t think about how all hosting and cooking and cleaning and grocery shopping and appointments has to happen outside long work day hours. But I digress. This was about baking a cake.

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The icing was complicated and didn’t turn out like the recipe promised, so I improvised and evolved an icing that tasted like the moon and the stars but will be impossible ever to replicate. The cake didn’t look like I’d imagined, but when I drizzled caramel all over it just before serving it, it looked mostly like the ooey-gooey, fancy, whopping cake I’d wanted to make.

Never mind that when I cut it into slices,  a quarter of the pieces toppled over onto the table. It was still a yummy, scrummy, rich, delectable cake that people picked off the table and licked off their fingers.

The point here is that I HAD to make a cake–a big, crunchy, meaty, caramelly, mile-high cake. I wasn’t going to be satisfied until I made it. It didn’t look like I intended to, and it actually tasted better than I’d imagined, but the point was making it.

I’m a process person. I often like getting to a place almost more than arriving. Those nights, after intense days at the office, all I needed was to work with my hands and handle butter and nuts and hot, soapy water. It unified all the layers of my self, and relaxed me, maybe because it was something I could DO.

Several years ago, in another intense season, I felt the same kind of urging but with a different medium. As that day progressed, I knew that I had to go home and paint a pineapple with chalk pastels. It was going to be a big, colorful pineapple. That’s all I knew. I’d never painted a pineapple before, but now was the time.

When I was ready to start, I discovered I didn’t have the size paper I needed to make the pineapple as big as I needed to make it. So I went on a search. Newspaper would do the job very well. I took the paper and my pastels and some Google images to the picnic table and started sketching. This is what happened.

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There was pink in the pineapple, because I intended it to be an expressive, whimsical pineapple. It turned out to be a lumpy, textured, prickly pineapple, larger than life, which is just what I wanted. My favorite feature, apart from the pink, is the defining black strokes here and there.

I’m sure any art teacher would criticize how the darks are on the wrong sides of some leaves, but I don’t care. In that moment, I was using my fingers to create colors and texture that soothed my soul. I can’t bring myself to throw away that yellowing paper hanging in our kitchen because it always takes me back to that sweet, fun, surprising evening.

I’m learning to pay attention to the times when I feel my face scrunched and puckered into a tense lines, as well as the moments when I breathe deep and slow. Those are the moments when peace and rest seep into the cracks of my heart and make me feel newly-made.

Some of my friends feel their tension melt away when they work with soil and green things, or walk their dog, or ad lib at the piano, or watch the stars, or knit complicated patterns, or clean windows (which will never happen to me). What I love about doing things with my fingers is that it unifies the physical and emotional layers in me, focuses me on the project at hand, and I lose myself in it. For a little while, nothing else matters. This is not about escape. Neither is it about perfection, mastery, or being Instagram-worthy. It’s about being self-aware and entering into the ways we function best.

I wonder how God felt when He made things with His fingers. I wonder if it’s anything like I feel when I make stuff with my hands.

It’s not the same thing for everyone, but I think everyone should find the thing that makes their soul sing, and make time for it at least once a week. Only, I won’t make a huge cake every week.

Related post: Battery Recharging

Things I’m Noisy About

“Anita, are you hungry?” My friend asked me in the lunch line. “You’re exclaiming at everything you’re seeing, and I’m just enjoying hearing your delight!”

Well, I was hungry, but the real truth was that I’m always noisy about the things I love, so when there’s wonderful colors and flavors around me, I start crowing and cheering and talking in superlatives. Plus, I haven’t lost the wonder of working in an institution where lunch–colorful, fresh, creative food– is waiting when I walk to the food bar every day. And today’s fish tacos with cilantro lime slaw really and truly was the best lunch all year.

Since bloggers are allowed to rant and rave about whatever they want, and this blogger tries hard not to complain or rant, (but sometimes she fails, judging by the looks of another post that’s simmering) I’m going to be noisy about two things I’m excited about at the moment.

  1. People frequently ask me for book recommendations, and I’m thrilled to give them ideas and push books into their hands, but it always mystifies me because I don’t know why they come to me with their questions about books. There are other people who read far more than I, but I wonder if I get asked about books because I’m just noisier than others about the books I read.

I’m part of a book club, where we read a book a month and the person who chose the book leads the discussion afterwards. (We take a break in the summer, in which our sole group activity is a grilled steak dinner. The men grill, and the women bring salads and desserts. “This is such a perfect evening” we kept saying to each other as we cuddled babies around the fire and drank coffee and looked at the stars. I’m the newest member, and don’t know all the traditions or rhythms yet, but it has been most enjoyable.) Our current read is River Town, two years on the Yangtze by Peter Hessler, who relates his experience as an English lit teacher in China with the Peace Corps.

 It takes me to my own experiences of teaching English as a second language, the child-like identity you have to take on as a foreigner, the way life narrows down to finding the right word to buy supper, the simpler lifestyle that comes with living in a small apartment in town far away from family, the freedom of stepping on a train to explore an even newer place, the love/hate relationship locals have with foreigners, the stereotypes that every nationality presupposes on other nationalities. Peter tells his story with great heart without being sentimental, and I frequently giggle at the stories. The folk lore, the quirks such as the “Happiest Man in All of Fuling as well as the Luckiest,” the teaching bloopers, and can you imagine–pet birds in cages that you bring with you and hang in the rafters when you hang out in the teahouse with your cronies. Can you imagine!

Everyone should experience being foreign at least once. It is terrifying and embarrassing, but wonderfully clarifying and exhilarating and deeply enriching.

19 Travel Quotes to Inspire Your Wanderlust

2. For many years, I dreamed of taking voice lessons. Then for a couple months in Poland, I was at the right place at the right time and exchanged voice lessons for English lessons, which was a singular experience.  I think the Slavic way of singing is different from what I was wanting, plus, my teacher wanted to make me a soprano and insulted me when he said “Most altos are lazy sopranos.” I have no hard feelings. It makes a good joke, and now I think I understand the point he was trying to make. I will always treasure the English lessons where we watched musicians’ speeches and songs. His English was advanced enough to understand the poetry, and I always think of him when I sing “Heal their hearts, heal their souls, their lives can be golden if your love enfolds.”

Last summer, I started going to a voice teacher at the local college. My friends had told me I’ll like her, and they were right. Claire is an incredibly gifted soprano, deeply sensitive to her students. I often wished for 30 minutes to catch up and then 30 to sing, because it was like meeting a friend every week. She hears what isn’t said or sung, and knows what I need to hear or do to improve. In the lessons, I learned that when you hand your soul to a stranger you don’t die, which helped me feel less fear in other settings like public speaking. I learned that driving onto a campus and finding my way into the right building isn’t impossible. I learned that I can sing higher  and sustain lower than I thought I could. I learned that I can bomb a recital, forget everything I knew to do, and still not die. Unfortunately, I’ll never be a credit to Claire, and this week I had my last lesson with her. New responsibilities and other things to learn have crowded out this privilege, but I will always value those lessons. I experienced the law of the echo and the enriching power of a focused discipline.

Of course, the best voices train for years, but I think everyone should take voice lessons for at least one year.

Anita’s Life Hacks

If you read other life hacks, you know that some are genius, and some fall flat. Well, these are my latest ones, and they work for me.

Kefir with orange concentrate

A couple years ago, I was attracting every bug in town, even with eating garlic sandwiches and Polish pickles at a tremendous rate. Jewel and I had an English student who is a metabolic dietitian (isn’t that a cool title?!) and she said I need probiotics.  So I got attached to kefir, and now I don’t like to do without it for more than a couple days. The healthiest option is to use fresh or frozen fruit to make smoothies with it. Last year when I lived in a dorm, that wasn’t easy to carry off, so I improvised by just adding lemonade mix, and it was lovely.

Now, with summer being over and frozen fruit being at a premium again, I found another solution: orange juice concentrate. I drop a dollop of it into my pint jar, add a bit of sugar, and  oh, it’s so good that I moan every time at the first sip. I associate cold, juicy oranges with this time of year anyhow, and this just fits. Add a smidgen of vanilla and call it an orange julius for breakfast. Yum.

Happy bubbles 

You know how some little people need time to warm up to you, and sometimes you don’t have that kind of time? Or they’re grumpy and won’t be charmed? I found a trick. It’s called bubbles.

It started when I just happened to slip a little tube into my purse after a wedding, and happened to remember it was there when I was trying to befriend a fairy child. The minute I started blowing the bubbles, she started giggling and chasing them and suddenly she liked me after all. Well, she liked the bubbles, but that was ok. Her rollicking laughter was the best thing that happened to me that day, and her gorgeous, chocolate truffle eyes are still with me. I gave her the tube to keep and she couldn’t get done talking about her “happy bubbles.”

So now I have a supply of mini bubble tubes in a closet (JoAnn Fabric’s bridal supply) and keep one in my purse to give to the next child. It’s a sure way to make sweet little friends in an instant. (The photo is at my sister’s wedding reception when my nephew forgot about being grumpy and hungry.)12698453_805008379644694_4219333476885333484_o

Small Packages

This is an effort to return to the short-lived Thing One and Thing Two posts.

1. Last night my students and their mom invited me to meet them for pizza. I taught the brother and sister when they were 5 and 7, and now they’re 9 and 11 and don’t come for English classes, but they all, the mom and dad and grandma and children, still treat me like family whenever we meet.  I stomped through blowing snow to the pizzeria to eat yummy pizza and drink Coke and listen to rambling, delightful, brave English.

“I remember when we read Amelia Bedelia! And the photo of me with ice cream all over my mouth. I remember…”

“Did you hear the joke about the Russian and Ukrainian?”

“The pessimist said it was dark, and the optimist said it was light and the realist said it was a tunnel…”

“I dream of living in America even more than England, and making a new life there.”

Hours later, outside in the cold again, after all the laughs and the hugs and well-wishing, they brushed the snow off their car windows but the youngest one wrote in the inch of snow over the hood: “I ♥ ANITA.”  awwwww

2. Oranges are in season somewhere and even though they consume how-ever many food miles to get here, what I ate the other morning made think that an orange is proof that God exists.  It comes in biodegradable wrapping and perfect portion control size (except I ate two) , and bite-sized segments. I revel in its refreshment and all the sunshine that’s packed in it.The flavor is comparable to nothing else and when an orange is fresh and cold, it’s better than chocolate.

 

Cosmos in Chaos

In a recent conversation about art, creativity, beauty, excellence, and ministry, I wished for a week’s time to discuss the themes. I have no statements to make, only ideas to explore. Madeleine L’Engle’s book, Walking on Water is a good read about these matters. This is one of my favourite quotes from there:

Leonard Bernstein says that for him, music is cosmos in chaos. That has the ring of truth in my ears and sparks my creative imagination. And it is true not only of music; all art is cosmos, cosmos found within chaos. At least all Christian art is cosmos in chaos. There’s some modern art, in all disciplines, which is not; some artists look at the world around them and see chaos, and instead of discovering cosmos, they reproduce chaos, on canvas, in music, in words. As far as I can see, the production of chaos is neither art, nor is it Christian.

Several deductions:
~Making cosmos (order) out of chaos is part of embracing the glory and wonder of being made in God’s image.
~Creating cosmos communicates, and it is more than talking to myself, though that has its place.
~Christian art might be characterized best by its outward focus, its valuing God and others over self. Does that mean that art/ creativity is service/ministry? This reminds me of how Michael Card, in his Scribbling in the Sand, quotes Vincent van Gogh: The more I think it over, the more I feel that there is nothing more truly artistic than to love people.
~Jesus was an artist when He washed His disciples’ feet, and later when He served them breakfast.
~I get to eat brunch with several artists in just a couple minutes!

The Diet to End All Diets

Monday
Breakfast Weak tea (1 calorie)
Lunch 1 boullion cube
1/3 cup water (2 1/2 calories)
Dinner 3 oz. prune juice (gargle)
1 pigeon thigh (1 1/2 calories)

Tuesday
Breakfast Scraped crumbs from burnt toast (1/2 calorie)
Lunch 1 doughnut hole (no sugar)
1 glass dehydrated water (0 calories)
Dinner 1 canary drumstick (4 calories)

Wednesday
Breakfast Boiled out stains of table cover (1/4 calorie)
Lunch 1/2 dozen poppy seeds (3 calories)
Dinner Bee’s knees and mosquito
knuckles, saute with vinegar (2 calories)

Thursday
Breakfast Shredded eggshell skins (1 calorie)
Lunch Belly button from navel orange (0 calories)
Dinner 3 eyes from Irish potato (diced) (3 calories)

Friday
Breakfast 2 lobster antennae (1/2 calorie)
Lunch 1 guppy fin (1 calorie)
Dinner Jellyfish vertebrae (3 calories)

Saturday
Breakfast 4 chopped banana seeds (1/2 calorie)
Lunch Broiled butterfly liver (1 calorie)
Dinner Fillet of soft shell crab claw (1 calories)

Sunday
Breakfast Pickled hummingbird tongue (2 calories)
Lunch Prime rib of tadpole (3 calories)
Dinner Tossed paprika and cloverleaf salad;
1 aroma of empty custard pie plate (1/2 calorie)

NOTE: ALL MEALS TO BE EATEN UNDER MICROSCOPE TO AVOID EXTRA PORTIONS!! WEIGHT LOSS GUARANTEED. GOOD LUCK!!