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 formblack 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.