Sunday, August 15, 2010

Steel-cut Oats and Sweet Basil

I don’t have much time for it these days, but I love reading fiction, especially the work of a handful of contemporary women writers.  Anne Lamott, who writes both fiction and non-fiction, is one of these authors.    I always enjoy her work- she is very eccentric, funny, insightful,  gritty , honest, and best of all, hugely compassionate (except possibly toward a certain former US President, but that is not important for this particular blog entry).  I just finished reading her new novel,  “Imperfect Birds,” which is genuinely terrifying.  The plot centers on an insecure mother and a drug-addicted daughter.  The daughter is an “A” student and such a “good kid” that it is hard to believe there is such darkness looming within her.  Like all of us who are deeply invested in the well-being, happiness, and success of our children, the parents want to believe that their daughter is all right.  They cling desperately and tenaciously to this illusion, repeatedly rationalizing her behavior and her lies to the point that they nearly allow her to spiral into total self-destruction.  The closing chapters are hopeful, but there is no certainty of a happy ending to this story.
There are so many great insights in this book that I could probably fulfill my August Pledge by writing only about them, but that might get a little boring.  Tonight, though, I do want to respond to one relatively minor exchange.  The mother is confiding to her best friend that she feels something is wrong with her family. The problem is ill-defined in her mind, just that “grippy” feeling that you get when you are afraid something is wrong with your kids or your husband, but you don’t know what.  (In fact, as I mentioned, there is a lot that is very wrong, but she doesn’t see it yet.).  Her friend commiserates and says that when she and her husband get busy and stressed,  “we get funky too.  The braid starts to unravel.  It’s just miserable.”  And what makes it better?  “Nothing magical.  Hooking back into the ordinary rhythms—getting up at the same time, letting down together at the end of the day, offerings of food.” 
I am a scientist and I don’t believe in magic, but I do believe in miracles.  And, I believe that there is something miraculous in the power of ordinary rhythms and daily rituals and their ability to ground us.  When I start feeling funky myself,  I try to attend to those rituals and it really helps.  For instance, when things start feeling off kilter and out of balance, I pay special attention to my morning routine.   I start each day with a small glass of orange juice, a bowl of steel-cut oatmeal, hot coffee and a vitamin.  I make sure that I make the bed, arrange the pillows, and tidy up the bedroom.  Then I am ready for whatever comes my way.   It is extraordinary, even miraculous, that something as extra ordinary  as that morning routine can affect the whole day.  It seems odd, but it really does matter.
I have already confessed to being type A, but really, I am not OCD about routines and tidiness.  In fact, I tend towards disorder (take a look at my desk) and hate feeling too scheduled.  But when things are out of whack, that morning routine helps to establish a still center to the swirling chaos around me.  These actions are clearly symbolic of taking care of myself and my environment, just simple acts of self-respect.  
Ordinary rhythms and regularity may provide comfort and stability when things feel out of balance, but too much comfort  becomes limiting in a different way.  We have been on the road a lot lately, and it strikes me as sad, even a little impoverishing,  that so  many small towns look so much alike these days.  It seems that wherever we get off the highway we see the same sights:  Staples, Home Depot, Applebees, Mickey Dees, and Walmart.   I suppose there is a certain comfort to this,  a sense that we can easily find what we need anywhere, but it bothers me that as a culture, we have come to expect the same food, the same stores, laid out in the same way, no matter where we are.  I really don’t have anything against any of these establishments, but I do think that you should be able to distinguish one town from another and food should taste a little bit different now and then.
For that reason, we tend to seek out  little Mom and Pop restaurants when we travel.  Risky?  Maybe, although it seems that the worst thing (short of food poisoning) that could happen is that we’ll have a bad meal.  And the best thing that can happen is that we’ll find something really special.  It seems that we have had more great experiences than bad or even mediocre ones.   We have been pretty lucky and have found some really great places that serve really good food.  I usually ask the server what his/her favorite is, and order that.  I am rarely disappointed.  We have found some great homemade pies in small unassuming places – pies just bursting with the flavor of fresh fruit, and so much better than the overly sweet schlock served at some of the national chains.  On our most recent trip across New York, we stopped at this little Italian place and enjoyed a surprisingly nice dinner.  As we were paying for our meal, we chatted with the owner.  He discovered that we were just passing through and asked how we knew about his café.  Of course, we didn’t – we just followed the signs from the highway because it looked like an interesting non-chain kind of place.   The owner actually hugged us and thanked us profusely.  I guess it is tough to compete with the Olive Garden or Applebees  these days!
Because our extended families live back east, we travel the route between Saginaw and New England fairly often. If you find yourself on that route, we heartily recommend the Lake House in St. Catharines, Ontario.  In fact, we just left there after another wonderful dinner.  I don’t think you could go wrong with anything on their menu.  If you want something less formal, try Moose Winooski’s.  If you get all the way to eastern New York, try the Sweet Basil.  If you tell the owner that you like to eat at  local establishments, you might even get a hug!
Today, I am grateful for both the comfort and stability of regular routine and the possibilities that open up when we seek variety. 

P. S.  I looked up the spelling of Moose Winooski's and was surprised and dismayed to discover that it is... yes... a (Canadian) national chain.  Bummer.  

1 comment:

  1. Oh, we really are soul sisters. Lizz and I have a travel rule that we never go to places we have at home when we're on the road. As much as possible, we stay away from chains. The exception is Mickey D's for bathroom stops. And Panera because we don't have that here. Most recently, we ate at a diner in Grayling that had the most amazing mulligatawny soup of all things.

    I loved this post. It resonated at so many levels!