The inclusion of culinary arts in Dr. Jamie Marich’s newest book Process Not Perfection was alluring to me. Particularly, as she included it under the tantalizing header of “Nourishment” as it relates to “manifesting” oneself through expressive arts. So, when I was asked to contribute a piece on culinary arts, I was like a kid in a candy shop. I had big plans for canning my latest batch of apple butter and whipping up a batch of tangelo clove marmalade. I am a preserves devotee. The entire process is magic to me: the alchemical transformation of ingredients that results in something greater than the sum of its parts, in my lovely copper jam pot, nay cauldron, is pure magic. I had fanciful dreams of waxing quixotically about the poetic process of mindfulness based culinary practices that increase flexibility and adaptability in a way that nourishes the soul. So, I set out to batch my preserves, like a kitchen witch with my metaphorical pointed hat perched upon my head, and the desire to go deep with some sugar.
By now you may have guessed that this weekend’s canning plans did not result in the whimsical witchy magic potion experience I had imagined at the outset, but rather quickly moved from the delicious “nourishment” category all the way back to the I’d-rather-not-be-here “distress based tolerance” category.
Apples went in the pot Friday evening. I cranked that bad boy up hoping to expedite the process and finish that night. No such luck as they still cooked too slowly. No problem! I’ll just slow it down and finish in the morning! Saturday morning resulted in a two-hour call (a delightful one, but one which would put me just another few hours behind). No big deal! A pro such as myself is certainly capable of conducting magic on the fly! Yet immediately on the heels of that call a pal showed up for a cup of coffee and to pick up a few jars of jam. Still feeling like a casual boss, I spent some time catching up and sent him on his way as my folks pulled in the driveway. “Let’s grab lunch!” they quipped. The panic began to set it. In the 5 minutes between calls and guests, I had begun zesting my tangelos. With the full knowledge that that is a flipping 48-hour process, I headed to an anxiety-ridden lunch, in which my head was exclusively focused on my damned preserves. Upon returning, I ran into the house, finished dissecting a crap ton of tangelos and got the suckers boiling. In a full-on panic now, I flipped on the power burner and filled up the canning pot. While waiting for that SOB to boil up I feverishly washed my jars and filled up a 5-gallon bucket with 25lbs of sugar. You can see where this is going, but I’ll just say the process involved a hammer and leave your imaginations to fill out the rest. The cans went down in the boiler, with apple butter splattered along the wall and after having the rack crash, I somehow retrieved them with only minor burns to my fingers. Somewhere in the midst of all of this, my carbon monoxide detector went off.
This is how the sausage, or jam as the case may be, gets made. The process is always magical in retrospect. From further down the road I can look back at my life and see how painful confluence of events has led to me existing in a satiating place of contentment. I can and do wax poetically about the beauty in overcoming the inherent challenges that exist in life having already moved through them. Beauty and magic are much easier to appreciate when we’ve made it to the other side of painful transformations.
In order to make jam, we are required to employ the right configuration of ingredients and processes in order to break apart the water, sugar, acid and pectin at the molecular level. We must add enough heat to fundamentally dissolve the old molecular bonds, boiling them at near scorching temperatures. The change here occurs under immense pressure. It’s only after that breakdown, that each component begins to re-bond in a new way, and the mixture begins to gel and transform into something completely new and so satiating.
Growth hasn’t always been a product of adding heat and pressure in my life. I’ve grown a great deal through joy and communion with other artists and soul searchers. But in my own life I have found that fundamental self-transformational change has most often come after the application of high heat and intense pressure, and that molecular breakdown and reconfiguration of the molecules that make up my soul has been necessary for reconstituting myself in the most delicious and satisfying ways.
So, with my pointed hat slightly askew, and my witch’s brew splattered all over the damned kitchen, I commence to sweep up the sugar coating the floor and clean up the sticky spots on my counter, and finally bask in the fruits of my labor. The process is painful sometimes, and the beauty of it isn’t always apparent in the midst of it all. The products of all that work, however, can be so damned sweet. For the record, the apple butter is delicious.
Simple Apple Butter
6 lbs of apples
3 ½ c. white sugar
½ c. Apple Cider Vinegar
1 tbsp Ground Cinnamon
½ tsp Ground Cloves
Core apples, leaving on peel and add all ingredients to cast iron pot on medium-low head, or crock pot if you’re feeling lazy. Use an immersion blender to blend once apples are soft and let simmer with the lid off until liquid reduces by half. Ladle into clean 4oz jars and can in water bath canner or just eat that stuff. Makes about 12 4oz jars.
Ancient philosophers talked about the good life.
The good life is a sort of craft – the Greeks used the word techne. A call from and response to the world around us, requiring adaptation and contextual awareness. The blacksmith, for example, carefully integrates understanding of his material’s malleability, the temperature of his fire, and the resistance of his anvil in hammering out metal goods. Crafts, nay arts, are doings. These aren’t things that are thought about in the abstract. They require the thoughtful and active integration of material conditions in one’s world in order to produce an put forth or express a product. Likewise, the good life, is an active process in which one’s life is carefully crafted like a work of art.
But somewhere along the way philosophers began talking about what it means to live morally - searching for the correct set of rules or principles to which ones’ behavior or internal compass must conform. Kant is most famous for this with his categorical imperative: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.” It’s a rather wordy command, that suggests that we ought to take no actions that give rise to logical contradictions. For example, the notion that “stealing is acceptable” is immoral, since stealing wouldn’t be possible in a world where everyone was stealing from everyone all of the time – it would result in a logical contradiction. Ergo, stealing is morally wrong. What is wrong is always wrong and what is good is always good. We can determine right and wrong, good and bad without any reference to the conditions in which a person lives.
Understanding morality this way is certainly a tidy way to look at the world. But humans are full of contradictions. For example, in one moment I might desire your approval, while in the next I could care less of what you think of me. Some might even say that the contradictory nature of our desires and thoughts are the distinguishing feature of what it means to be human. It is certainly one of the things that makes human beings such fascinating creatures. Humans grow, change, and adapt. We look back on the past in light of new experiences and rethink what those past events mean to us. We look into the future with the baggage of past experiences coloring what we see in front of us. We very often have our minds made up only to let all our old ideas go in the face of a new feeling, experience, or idea, and reform our minds again and again over the courses our lives. Very often we are confronted with experiences thrust upon us by conditions outside of our control, and we are forced to grow and adapt to accommodate these changes.
If we suppose that a “good” life can be understood in moral terms – that is right and wrong – we run the risk of losing what it means to be human at all. Because as much pain as there might exist in growth and change, there is also a great deal of beauty.
Over the course of my life I’ve had the privilege of mentoring and coaching a number of women through life challenges. Of watching them crawl through suffering, wash out their wounds, and trudge along. Inevitably, I find a moment in which we are sitting across the table from one another laughing about something completely inconsequential. And there she is. A fully realized human being, flourishing in her own right. It’s like a dance, an artform, to watch another person begin to integrate the pieces of their lives and reorganize their own narrative moving from tragic victim to laughing friend. It’s a dance that invites us to participate ourselves, reconsidering our own stories and rewriting our own endings.
Living morally is living abstractly – divorced from the world in ivory towers determining what is right and wrong for everyone. Living beautifully, crafting a good life, is done in concert with the world in which we live and each another, taking the time to integrate life lessons, and opening our hearts to grow. To rewrite our own unique stories and invite others to do the same.
Institute for creative mindfulness
Our work and our mission is to redefine therapy and our conversations are about the art and practice of healing. Blog launched in May 2018 by Dr. Jamie Marich, affiliates, and friends.