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Thursday, August 28, 2008

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First things first

"When I cannot write a poem, I bake biscuits and feel just as pleased."

— Anne Morrow Lindbergh

I came across this quote the other day, and it sounded so nice and enlightened and ladylike, I was ready to cross-stitch it onto tea towels, except I realized it would take me fifteen years to do that, and also, that it's not really true. Not for me.

God knows, I appreciate all that goes into a batch of flaky biscuits, but I can't honestly say it's anything like watching a cloud of ideas begin to swirl and spark and find form—black words on a white page, stars appearing in the firmament. Every time, it's like the first time.

Not even the most perfectly risen, exquisitely golden, piping hot biscuit can do that for me.

That's not to say it can't or shouldn't for someone else. Cooking and baking are also about making something new, and can be deeply creative. I appreciate that especially at this time of year when I find myself naturally drawn to the kitchen. As autumn approaches, our table sees less takeout and more pot roasts and whole chickens. The bread machine and the crock pot come out. I get a gambler's kick out of seeing how many meals I can tease out of Sunday leftovers, or what I can concoct from a depleted and eccentric pantry without having to run to the grocery store.

The pleasure is heightened by the satisfaction of feeling thrifty. Rising gas and grocery prices really dented our checking account over the summer, and we have pulled the fiscal belt in a notch. I don't mind so much, though it's meant passing the floral display at the supermarket with a wistful sigh the past several weeks. But our big picture is looking good, and after last year, "tight" is a relative term.

There's a world of difference between our situation now and then, but one thing I've really noticed is that we have lots more company. I can't say it makes me happy that legions more families are feeling pinched, but it's certainly less lonely out here on the edge than it was a year ago. And I don't like that people are stressed and worried for the future the way we were, but I do like how the present economy is fostering a culture of resourcefulness and mindfulness about consumption.

It's becoming socially acceptable among a widening circle of people to raise chickens, clip coupons, drive a smaller car, stay home for vacation, grow vegetables, share leftovers, talk about money. There's a lot of creativity going into the problem of how to extract more from less, and there needs to be.

But you know, we're a nation of extremes, which is probably why I feel so at home here. Frugality can become its own kind of obsession and diversion in the same way consumerism can. Case in point, my coupon clipping. I think I've finally found the middle path, thanks to an online service that highlights optimal savings for me, but for a few years, I would spend hours a week on coupons. I got a hunter-gatherers' adreneline surge from seeing that I'd saved forty or fifty bucks on groceries. But broken down into an hourly wage, it really wasn't much. And it was keeping me from things that I am good at, that pay better, that make me happy, that I believe were given to me to do when I picked up my orientation packet at the door.

My major in life happens to be writing. But it could have just as easily been baking or homemaking. Just because one of those things is my thing, doesn't mean I think it's more valuable than the others. It's a question of being aware of where your gifts lie, and making sure the bulk of your effort serves the answer.

Just like I have trouble believing that some people are just called to spend their whole lives shopping and spending, it concerns me when frugality becomes the master and not the servant of a person's true purpose in life. If clipping coupons and riding bikes and growing lettuce free up more of your energy and time to be that person you are called to be, great. But the diversification of society was a good thing, and I think, in our zeal, it is easy to romanticize a time when everyone, everyday, was consumed with the problem of merely getting by. The day when technology allowed some of us to leave the farm and become writers, doctors, plumbers, sculptors, priests, teachers, inventors was a good day. Because face it, some of us are really bad at remembering to water the lettuce.

I meant all day yesterday to sit down and write. I've learned that the more days go by, the harder it gets. Creative flow and stoppage works just like your bowels. Defer at your peril.

I was finding it hard to focus all morning, so I did the things that always ground me: made the beds, emptied the dishwasher, walked the dog (there is nothing like holding a bag of poop for three blocks to bring you quickly down to planet earth). I should have sat down at the keyboard then, but I decided to tidy and vaccum. Then it was time to get the boys. Then I got caught up in the kitchen. I was making a meal of roast beef sandwiches with homemade broth, and I found a box of cake mix on the top pantry shelf, so I decided to make cupcakes for dessert. By suppertime, I was snapping at Patrick and the kids.

I've learned by now to ask myself what I'm angry about when I start snapping. It wasn't hard to arrive at the answer: I'd spent all afternoon cleaning house and making dinner and cupcakes, instead of what I really needed to do. I think it was the cupcakes that put me over the edge.

All that stuff is the stuff of survival, or some elaboration on it. We've got to eat, we've got to keep up our nest, we've got to get by. It has to be done. And you know what? It needed to be done again this morning. It never goes away. We can spend our whole lives surviving, and never rise above it. Too many people don't have a choice about where to allocate their energy. For them, finding food, money, fuel and shelter is a necessary pre-occupation, every day, all day. But some of us elevate survival to vocation.

The snap test is such a great indicator of balance for me. When I start snapping, I know I've betrayed my purpose, my time, and my imagination.

I am so lucky to have the ability to choose, skinny wallet and all. I understand that our lifestyle, which we consider to be one of certain sacrifices, is one of unimagined luxury in parts of the world and our own city. This morning I was able to send my kids to school, clothes on their backs, lunch bags in hand. I was able to come back to my house instead of going out to work somewhere. I threw a load of laundry in the washer, made my bed, poured some coffee.

The dishwasher needed to be emptied. Again. I looked at it. First things first.

I came straight here, and I promised myself a cupcake afterwards.

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Blogger saalon said...

I want to say something intelligent about how this this essay is, how right it is about a lot of things, but those words would be less than the words you wrote above.

So instead: Excellent!

I hope that will properly convey my feelings.

11:46 AM  
Blogger elaine said...

I leave my dishwasher full and my bed unmade to read posts like this one. First things first. Then I walk the dog (metaphorically-speaking) and reflect on what you've said.

Thank you, again.

12:50 PM  
Blogger Geoff Meeker said...

I don't know that I've ever seen a cupcake emerge as the antagonist in a story.

However, it bit the biscuit in the end.

You definitely have an original voice, Kyran.

12:50 PM  
Blogger Kathryn said...

Dishwasher is waiting to be emptied here out in Phoenix, AZ too.

There's so much truth packed in this post- To the casual observer, I must have appeared to be a goofy bobblehead with all of the nodding and smiles perpetrated while reading it. So much of what you write becomes personal meditation for me. I take it with me and savor it throughout the day (not unlike that biscuit or cupcake). Thanks for the nourishment!

1:13 PM  
Blogger Mrs. G. said...

I can't tell you how happy I am when one of your posts lights up in my reader. I love your writing.

1:26 PM  
Blogger Tracey said...

Ah, yes. This is where I am today. I cannot even think of a TRIVIAL post to write, so I am instead reading everyone else's blogs and saying "Yeah! That's what I was thinking, too! Dangit. Now I can't write it anyway..."

Pathetic. I think I'll go do the dishes...

1:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have actually been looking forward to cooking and cleaning today... I found myself knee deep in work as soon as I sat down today.

So how timely is it that I stopped by to catch up with you, and the very next thing I am doing is going to the market? I think I'll need to pick up some baking ingredients while I'm there. :)

3:23 PM  
Blogger patsyrose said...

Just a little note about coupon clipping...there is a lady who collects all her local newspapers and clips the coupons from them. She then lists them on Ebay and sells them for just a token amount. You really can buy just about anything on Ebay, can't you?

7:18 PM  
Blogger kazari said...

I needed this today. I've been snapping at my husband all week, without the sensibility to wonder why.
Now I know.

7:47 PM  
Blogger bluebird of paradise said...

mmmm those cupcakes look yummy. I bet the little boys liked them when they got home from school!

7:52 PM  
Blogger Jennifer H said...

Well, I wish I would ave figured this out on my own, but thanks for the nudge. Your awareness of your purpose is--I'm not sure of the word, but it's inspiring to hear.

You spoke the gospel when you said that the more days go by, the harder it is to write. A hundred amens.

10:45 PM  
Blogger Suzanne said...

Everything you've said about writing and the finding balance in life between what we need to do and what feeds our soul is so true. Your beautiful way of conveying it, just makes it even better.

3:22 PM  
Blogger Lu said...

When I start snapping, I know I've betrayed my purpose, my time, and my imagination.

That is a great line right there. Maes you think and want cupcakes...

11:52 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Kyran, without your wisdom, your lovely writing would just be words, but together, they are something rather otherworldly and grounded at the same time. I'm so glad to have stumbled across your blog today.

6:27 PM  

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