Good Enough

Our heads swiveled a fast and simultaneous quarter turn toward each other, eyes meeting under raised eyebrows, identical bemused smiles on our lips. The grade of the class valedictorian in the Culinary School Professional Chef’s program had just been announced, 94.2. My grade had come in the mail a few days before, 94.09. I was salutatorian .My husband whispered, “Perfect! You tied for first and don’t have to give the speech!” The rest of the ceremonies continued in a happy blur of additional awards, of newly bestowed diplomas and toques. I basked in the proud smiles of my husband and daughter, the warmth of our mutual achievements with my classmates .It was a wonderful day, the culmination of one of the most physically grueling and mentally challenging endeavors I have ever undertaken. Culinary school is a young person’s game and I am young only in spirit. I leaned in, I gave it my all, and here I was graduating with high honors. Perfect, right? Wrong.

One of the simultaneously most encouraging and discouraging things I’ve found in my life is that I am still learning about myself. It is discouraging because I really would have hoped I would be further along in some of these areas by this point. I mean, really! But I suppose more encouraging than not because we do seem to be able to learn, in baby steps, new things in all these new adventures. My life lesson came here; I spent the two weeks following my euphoric graduation depressed, even shamed for not having come in first . I could tell my instructors  expected I would, and I knew my food was consistently good. I let them down I thought, I let myself down. If only, I thought, I hadn’t been on a train stalled for an hour on the way in to my final practicum, the “creative”,  and my carefully packed ice cream component of the dessert hadn’t begun to melt in spite of the ice packed around it, destroying the texture….  If only my portfolio grade had been one percentage point higher,i f only I had done this, done that.  I was torturing myself with “what if” scenarios .

Hold on, I thought, clearly there is something here I need to stop and try to understand. How could I let such a richly rewarding year turn into so much dross simply because of not, by the slimmest of margins, for that matter regardless of margins, being the “best”. Why does this matter so much? Why is external validation still important at all at my age? Shouldn’t I be past this?

My husband thinks it is because my mother always demanded excellence in everything I did. I’m not sure that is exactly right but it was certainly true that a gold star accomplishment gave me a temporary safe harbor in my tempestuous upbringing. There was no such thing as “good enough” actually being good enough, it wouldn’t make me feel safe in her love, even though I probably was. Her love just didn’t feel unconditional to me, it felt like a prize to be won . I think it has to do also with my natural temperament, having to prove myself, to myself…over and over. But here is the thing, I am a grownup, no one can keep me feeling safe but me and I am the most qualified person to judge the worth of my work.

And I think, finally, I get it now. I think, finally, I can relax. I think, finally, I can be happy for good enough. Scratch that, I ,finally, can be more than happy, I can be deeply grateful.

I am , in the end, proud of my hard work and accomplishment. And I am absolutely loving putting all that I have learned, all my heart into the meals I am making for my family and friends …and this, and only this was what I wanted to do , it is good enough.

And I sure hope I have this one down now, because the next life lesson is almost certainly waiting just around the corner …

Posted in A well lived life, Creating happiness, Culinary | Tagged , , , , , | 8 Comments

Accidentally on Purpose

I moved behind him and called out enthusiastically “Hot behind!” He turned, eyes crinkling above the gang style teardrop (in his case a  fleur de lis ) the prison style, inch tall, hand lettered, four letter tattoo on his neck clearly visible, “Why thank you!!” he said, grinning.

Perhaps I should explain?

Some of you know I began Culinary School this past year. It has been a remarkable experience. I have learned more about food, cooking and baking in the last few months than I have learned in a lifetime.  I’ve also learned much about my physical endurance and its limits. There have been classical techniques to learn, mountains of arcane facts to memorize and a long list of kitchen protocols to observe. The anecdote above was simply an example of the last. Commercial kitchens are very dangerous places with a multitude of accidents just waiting to happen. Hot pans are being whipped around, ovens are opened suddenly, people rush, carrying a knife over to the sink to wash off before it is needed for its next task.

So…we need to be careful, for our selves and others and one of the protocols includes shouting out cautions. A knife being carried from one place to another requires a shout of “Knife Walking!” a hot pan going from stove to be worked on a stainless steel table (“Hot Walking!”), carried behind others is, you guessed it, “Hot Behind!” and all mixed in with a chorus of “Oven Open!” “Freezer door opening!” . The kitchen can be downright cacophonous in addition to being an absolute mad swirl of highly focused activity.

I have been delighted to find my years of theater training have unexpectedly helped. After this long stretch of stage work I am well aware of where my body is vis a vis others (one needs to be aware of this at all times on stage). It is so clear when fellow students haven’t had that kind of experience. We get hyper focused on work and it is a trick to be simultaneously taking in the environment around you. I am used to being alert to warnings too. “Five minutes to places!” the stage manager will call out, meaning in 5 minutes all actors are to be stationed backstage in the wings, poised for entrance on stage. In theater the proper etiquette is to echo back “Thank you 5 minutes!” to show you have heard the time correctly. (It took me weeks to get out of the habit in the kitchen not to respond “Thank you Oven Opening!” so well trained was I … I can thank the bemused looks from my fellow students for helping me break the habit.)

It is exhausting, it is demanding, it is wonderful and I am here completely by accident.

A trip taken on a whim last year began this particular phase in life. I wrote about it in this blog.  For something that has pretty much taken over my life for now, culinary school, I am struck by the fact that finding out about that trip was an accident, as were so many of the most important things that have happened in my life.

Meeting my dear husband of so many years? Blind date (first ever for either of us) the first day of college. My first “grown-up” job? My father in law worked for the company and got both my husband and I interviews.  My amazing and dear daughter? An utterly unplanned delight. My cherished friends? Randomly met through volunteer work, theater and school. (One I met by chance at a health spa…and she rekindled the love of biking by suggesting a trip that engendered bike trips around the world the last several years). The improv teacher who changed my life by teaching me to trust my instincts? Learned about in a flyer posted on my local library bulletin board.  The list goes on…and on.

Do you see a pattern here?

I had met a newish friend for drinks in NYC several weeks ago. We were bringing each other up to date on where our lives had taken us, as new friends do. She is much younger than I and after telling me her story she sighed and said “It seems like I just don’t have a plan for my life, I just kind of float from one thing into another.” I looked at her and said,”I’ve lived my whole life that way and you know what? It’s been Awesome.”

And so it has. It also, to me, begs the question. Were all these things just accident? Random events? Or was there fate involved? Or God? I have no idea. None. All of these things that have so indelibly shaped this life… out of the blue it might appear.

Mind you, this is not to say I haven’t had heartache and pain and fear in my life… none of us get through life without our share of each. But what I can say is that I have really, really loved my unexpected life so far and gratefully anticipate the life enhancing surprises that still are to come. I look eagerly forward to the years ahead of living accidentally on purpose ~

Posted in A well lived life, Acting, Creating happiness, Culinary, Family, Risk taking, Self awareness | Tagged , , , , , | 7 Comments

Something Rotten in Hungary

I’ve been remiss in this blog , while I did intend to take a breather from writing ,I didn’t imagine it would be for  quite this long~

When I last left off , I  had shared with you that I wanted to take a step back from analyzing and interpreting my life and just live an unexamined life full of “do” and free of “ponder”. While that’s really not “me” at all, I was actually pretty successful at it for a while there. I hung out with family and friends, I read, I biked , I travelled in the US and I knit . It was a great summer. Then September came and my life of “doing” went into overdrive. I am still flat out but I feel compelled to write this piece.

September  began with a two week biking trip to Hungary and Slovakia with a friend. As soon as I returned  home I plunged into a Culinary School Program , all consuming, hence the lack of blogging, but it’s time… I need to write about that trip.

Never having been to Eastern Europe, the bike trip was a revelation. We began in Bratislava, Slovakia. My friend  and I were arriving from different US cities, her flight getting in a few hours apart from mine. We arranged to meet in the town square where a local festival was in full gear.

I sat in one of maybe a hundred metal chairs lined up in front of a bandstand, half of them unoccupied, letting my jetlagged self soak up the still warm rays of September sun as I awaited her arrival. The square was intimate, surrounded with mid-eighteenth century buildings that had in common a Baroque sensibility and dull, peeling paint. I was charmed by the presentation going on onstage, Adults, musicians and singers, in native dress teaching children who clambered up on stage traditional songs and dance. It was so seemingly innocent, so joyful. Proud parents to my left and right smiled, clapped and sang along.

I won’t burden you with the  entire travelogue , I promise, but we did have some unique experiences .They included the chance to learn how to make strudel and Hungarian flat bread and an exhibition of hundred year’s old Hungarian cowboy skills, a Roma band performing with a  deeply soulful Hungarian vocalist. And of course we biked, ( one day I biked for fifty five miles, my personal record, but in truth it was only because a handful of us got lost! ) We biked in city and countryside alike, the most frightening biking was a stretch along a narrow highway, less than an arm’s length from speeding cars and trucks for a breathless four kilometers. The most thrillingly wonderful ride was riding into Budapest alongside thousands of marathon runners in one of  Europe’,s largest road races… that was really very cool! We learned that the closest language to Hungarian is not German but Finnish (!) and we saw the usual stunning churches. (That last sounds jaded and I am not really but you know after awhile an amazing European Church just kind of becomes another amazing European Church.) We had impossibly (and wonderfully) strong coffee and were served a very lot of organ meats. Organ meats are very big in Hungary apparently, who knew? We passed huge , abandoned aluminum factories built by the Soviets during their occupation of Hungary, part of their grand plan to build industry in Hungary and Soviet era soulless apartment complexes, stolid and bleak, pushed up against charming, if neglected ,centuries old Hungarian housing. We visited the magnificent  Opera House in Budapest, and my personal favorite, we visited the incomparable Széchenyl Thermal Baths, a hot spring bath complex of indoor and outdoor mineral health baths dating from the mid-nineteenth century,great for sore biking muscles and  filled with people from all walks of life and all ages. Old men playing chess at the edge of a pool, oligarchs with young playmates draped on their shoulders, teenagers and dowagers in bikinis. It was quite unlike any place I have ever been.

I wish that all of this had formed my deepest, most lasting impressions.

But under all this panoply of sights and sounds is a darkness that became more and more apparent as the trip went on, something deeply disturbing is happening in this region. Something I have looked for news of since my return and still see so little about it in our press.

Hungary was an early cooperator with the Hitler regime and hundreds of thousand of  Hungarian Jews were sent to their deaths in the matter of only a few weeks. This country which is geographically central has been occupied by and an appeaser of outside governments for much of its existence. While it is now a democratic society, it’s democracy is only two dozen years old , it is fragile. The economy is poor, unemployment is high and there is a resigned bitterness in the populace that is widespread and paplable.

A third of Hungary’s parliamentary government is controlled by the Jobbik Party and this party is positioned to have an even stronger presence after the upcoming elections. The Jobbik Party is a Neo-Fascist political party, with an avowed agenda against Jews and Roma, a focus on Hungary for Hungarians (where have we heard something like this before?). It also had a paramilitary arm which has since been officially outlawed…and yet…

Young men in black shirts and military insignia are to be found throughout the country, a new movement is building. Hungary is not the only place this is happening in the world but what is remarkable is how deeply involved in the state government the fascists are and how powerful they have become…with no ceiling in sight. There is a growing sense of Nationalism and suddenly the concert I attended in nearby Bratislava on my first day and all the various folk  crafts, dances and demonstrations we witnessed throughout our travels took on a darker tone for me.

We have heard the words “Never again.” in reference to the Holocaust. I think we need to be alert today and to pay attention. We must never cast our eyes away again.

Please take note and keep your awareness on guard. I fear there truly is something rotten in Hungary.

Posted in Bigotry, Culinary, Cycling, Hungary, Travel | Tagged , , | 11 Comments

View From a Bike / View From a Blog

I ran into insomnia at a pretty early age.  From about ten years old on, I would wake up in the middle of the night. I have no idea why. Maybe it was because I was a pretty intense little kid, maybe because my family life was exceedingly complex, who knows? It certainly wasn’t anything for which I was taken to a doctor, it was simply considered part of who I was. And anyway I had my own cure.  Whether it be 3 am or 4 am, whenever my eyes popped open like a fast camera shutter, I’d throw on some pants and a top, quickly don a pair of shoes, grab my bike and ride through the dark and utterly silent streets of what was then still a very small town. The whole town felt like it belonged to me. I felt powerful and almost like I was magic.

All these years later, there is still no ride, carnival or automobile, that can give me the thrill of the first downward push of a pedal and the resulting glide down my driveway as I begin a new adventure. I am in that discrete moment as fully ten years old as grown woman. I feel powerful and dare I say it? Maybe a little bit magic.

My bike was the very first thing in the world that made me feel free. It still makes me feel that way.

I’ve biked all over the world by now: Vietnam, France, Luxembourg, Germany, Holland, Brussels, Italy, and this fall I will bike in Hungary and Slovakia . Mostly however, I bike here, in the New England town where I live and  the surrounding  area.

I drink in the day lilies, bachelor buttons, Queen Anne’s lace and butter and eggs, along with other wildflowers whose names I never learned, as they blossom to my left and my right on any given trail.  I’ll stop to take photos of something new and lovely. I’ll purchase fresh vegetables at a farm stand. I smile at people; most often without knowing I am smiling…until I see all these doughty New Englanders are looking surprised and smiling back.

I’m thinking about all of this now because my bike has also always been one of my favorite places to think. The steady sound of tires on the road, the perfect cadence of alternate legs, and the sun on my face together lend themselves to ideas forming and growing. This is where the majority of my blog entries begin. , my thoughts generally moving as easily and rhythmically as my feet pedal.

Somehow, right now, something is different. This summer I don’t want to think, I simply want to do. I don’t want to multi-task, I just want to ride.

And telling you all of this is by way of explanation. I am going to step back from blogging and trying to puzzle things out for myself, for a little bit anyway, and just try to be.

I hope you’ll come back to read this little blog when I return, likely sometime this fall. I am so grateful for all of you who read this and for the always generous and kind feedback you have given me. I have treasured every bit of this particular adventure.

For some reason though, right now seems to be the time to power down all the questioning and wondering.

And just ride.

Until soon… and thank you so much.

Posted in A well lived life, Creating happiness, Cycling | 10 Comments

The Fixer Upper

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On a recent trip to Lyon, I was exploring the city ,walking about on a cool and drizzly day. It was early afternoon and many of the shops were closed but, as I prefer window shopping to the actual activity, the time was spent in a most delightful fashion. And then I came upon this shirt with its English language slogan in an inexpensive lingerie shop window. “Oh no.” I thought, “It is everywhere.”

I believe that there are few things as inhibiting of spirit, creativity and growth as this drive to be perfect and I realize how much energy I have wasted in its pursuit and how much sadness I have created for myself in this, the most futile of all quests. Saddest of all, there are the many things that I could have done blissfully had I not had that inner dictatorial voice in my head hectoring me with “But is it perfect? It must be perfect!”

I grew up in a time when “standards” were something still talked about as an important thing to indoctrinate children with in their rearing, and I was indoctrinated quite well. This insured that my childhood was spent anxiously aware of where” the mark” was and whether I was hitting it or if I was falling short. Hitting the mark felt like it was very high stakes, do or die. Like anything else, there was a plus side to this. I was a high achiever in school, a hard worker in any job I was asked to do and, until I rebelled with gusto in late adolescence , an exceptionally tractable child. It also served as a sometimes useful counterweight to my native personality which is impulsive and dare I say it .. downright slapdash. Raising a child with impossibly high standards is undeniably good for society but it was I think a very mixed blessing for me.

All of this is in the forefront for me now as we, once again, try to envision our daughter’s life for her.

My daughter’s life, what it is, what it has been and what it will look like in the future is never far from my thoughts. When you have a child with special needs, this is always true, sometimes more so than others. While my friends with typically developing adult children sometimes wholeheartedly wish they could in fact plan their children’s lives, the reality of having that responsibility , a responsibility that extends even after your own death, can feel immense.

One of the things that it is recommended you do when you are a parent in this situation is to write something called “A Letter of Intent”. This document, while not legally binding, outlines your hopes, wishes, and by corollary , your fears, for your child’s life after your death. It is an auxiliary to your will and trust and it serves as a guidepost to the folks who will be there advocating for your child when you are no longer there to do it. The document needs to be updated as your child and circumstances change, ours is overdue for a rewrite. Much has changed in the five years since I wrote the last one. I put it off for no other reason than it is very,very hard to think of my daughter in the world without my love and direct protection even though I have the utmost faith in those we are entrusting to be there for her with love and discernment. But it is time, past time and so , I will do it now. I know I must.

Prior to the actual writing of this document though there is always a time of allowing a mishmash of ideas to float around and bang up against each other until, finally, a true intent can be crystallized and communicated …and one of these ideas right now is around the idea of perfection.

My daughter has had a lifetime of therapies, from many different disciplines and of many different sorts. Therapy, of any sort, starts with the premise that something is broken and that something can and should be “fixed”. I wonder what message that sends to a person over a lifetime, in particular, of course, I wonder what message that has sent to my daughter.

It all comes from love and concern of course. What responsible parent doesn’t try to marshall all possible resources and tools to help their child? Time, money, difficulty are all as unimportant as that parent’s own resources allow them to possibly be. When we were young , struggling financially and over extended in both energy and time , the money spent didn’t matter, the hours in waiting rooms and in consultation didn’t matter. Only one thing was important and that was making sure our daughter had available to her every single possibility we could possibly provide. The bottom line? The lion’s share of all this therapy, decades of it performed by a virtual army of dedicated and highly gifted therapists, has not actually resulted in a fuller life for her as far as I can make out. Then again, hard to prove a negative, would she be in worse straits without all of it? Who can say? I hope it is true that it has helped.

She is a grown woman now and here is the question that I am dealing with before I can put metaphorical pen to metaphorical paper and write this important document. When is enough enough?

At what point can she just breathe and be who she is? At what point does she have the right to be exactly who she is and not have to work so very ,very hard for that next goal? At what point does she deserve to be done with being shaped and molded from the outside? When can she cease being the “fixer upper” and just be the shining soul she is and has always been? My sense is that the answer is now. She has worked so hard for so long, she deserves , make that ,has earned the right to just be.

But, and here is the rub, what if there is that one thing, the one thing I don’t know about yet, and might not even exist until after my death, that might unlock doors for her, that might give her ease in her life, that might add sparkle and joy to her existence …and it can all come to her with a huge expenditure of effort on her part, with just more therapy? Or not. It might be just one more impossible mountain she is asked to climb. But there is that chance, however small, that it could work…

What then?

What do I advise about this in my letter of intent?

I haven’t a clue.

Posted in A well lived life, Family, Parenting a child with special needs | Tagged , , , , | 12 Comments

A Week in Boston

I moved to New England decades ago, this in itself does not make me a local. Around here you have to be native to claim roots and better yet, your great-grandparents need to have been born here to stake a serious claim of them.

I had come here from New York City, and always considered that city to be the place where my heart is held. I was a transplant there too but New York is long accustomed to an influx of strangers and it was an easy place to feel part of, to feel at home in.

Boston on the other hand, is a tough nut to crack, almost impregnable in some ways. At times the whole place and all of its people can seem to carry a a collective chip on the shoulder. Strangers might be treated warily. Over the years I have met and been embraced by some of the most wonderful and warm people I know here in Boston, but I never have felt “of ” this place. Returning home after a trip never made my heart jump in excitement the way the first sight of the Manhattan skyline still does.

This all changed five days ago on Marathon Monday. My shock , grief , anger and fear were a reaction to what had been done to My city, My people. I knew that for the first time in all these years I was a Bostonian.

Yesterday Boston and the surrounding suburbs were in “lockdown” with the populace instructed to stay inside,doors locked ,told not open their door for anyone but the police with proper identification. Rumors flew, on TV and in social media, actually the whole week had been like that. There was no way to know what was real , the whole population was clenched like a prize fighter’s fist.

I spent the day alternately glued to the often undependable news , listening to nonstop conjecture and then turning everything off ..and then baking … and then knitting… , in short, whatever I could think to do to feel centered and to calm my jumping bean nerves. I could only do this sporadically and could never relax into it completely… eventually tuning back in to the barrage of what was mostly non-news. And then, by near nightfall, it was all coming to a close. It was announced that people could once again venture outdoors, with the caveat to be vigilant as one suspect was still at large, “armed and extremely dangerous” . He was the surviving one of the two brothers held responsible for Monday’s horrid events (the other killed in a bloody gunfight in the middle of the night in a neighboring town). Minutes later,  we were told he had been found. He was successfully apprehended, wounded but alive. I was flooded with feelings of elation and gratitude. I felt so very proud of my city. The chip on the shoulder which I had previously observed now transformed in my eyes to a badge of courage, I was so grateful for and proud of the work done by law enforcement and by the citizenry. I went to bed, feeling utterly spent but fully safe.

Today, my feelings are more complicated . I am still so very grateful but the elation is quieter and the grief for the lives and the innocence lost have found their way back in. I am remembering this morning that there is a long road still ahead in healing for those victims who lost their family members, their legs, their joy… and for all of us to fully regain our sense of safety (which we know anyway is an illusion but it can feel blessedly real at times).

I think about people who live in parts of the world where every day is spent in the kind of turmoil one day of which left me feeling completely undone. I can’t even imagine what their lives would be like. I hope I never have to live life like that and I am filled with compassion for those who have to do so.

I feel sadder and wiser. I also know the Boston Marathon next year will be a thing of beauty . I know it will bring tears to my eyes… and I know I am not alone in this.

Love that dirty water… Boston, you’re my home.

Posted in Boston | 8 Comments

What Could You Do If You Knew You Could Not Fail?

Years ago I made a foolish purchase. It sure wasn’t my first and it wasn’t (and won’t be) my last.

This particular foolish purchase is a silvery looking ingot, heavy with some base metal, engraved with the words, “What could you do if you knew you could not fail?”

It is meant , of course, to be inspirational and I bought it to inspire me and to prop on my desk. It has been modestly useful as a paperweight … but it has never been a bit of use as an inspiration.

What could I do if I knew I could not fail? Well, I could do anything I had done competently before with the assurance that prior experience would likely guarantee me success. I could do things I knew everything about, with no unknowns to contend with. This would ensure I could go through life feeling successful, ensure that I never experienced failure.

The only problem with this? This way of living would ensure nothing so much as a very small life that could only grow smaller. What could I do if I knew I could not fail? … not very much really. I could do precious little, instead of doing so many of the things that have been extremely precious to me .

If I did only I knew I could not fail at, I wouldn’t have begun writing this blog. I wouldn’t have auditioned for theater roles that were outside my comfort zone. I wouldn’t have gone on an international bike trip just months after an ankle was put back together with plates and pins. I wouldn’t have taken on countless new projects. I wouldn’t have married. I wouldn’t have tried a hundred new things in the raising of our daughter.

And right this moment I wouldn’t be busily gathering materials for my application to culinary school to begin the journey toward becoming a professional chef.

It is not so much that I am brave by inclination, we have established this, I am not .But I do know this- the real risk is that if I don’t stretch myself, knowing full well that failure is always a possibility, I will not have fully lived my life.

How many times have I said in this blog after taking a leap, “I needn’t have worried”? I want to place my energy in the leap, not in concern for the safety net. Everyone has their own ways to grow and I believe this is mine.

So I will apply to school . If I am accepted, I will be in a setting where I will once again have to study for midterms and finals, work long days on my feet and I will be classmates with students many of whom will be less than half my age. I will be stretching creative wings in a way brand new to me. It is intimidating and it is very exciting.

In my Mom’s last year she lost the desire to eat and I, concerned, got her to drink a supplement with the brand name Ensure. My Mom always referred to it as Endure. I always thought she just had gotten it wrong, now I’m not so sure.  More and more it seems to me that a life lived with the main emphasis on “ensure” quickly becomes instead one that is merely endured.

I took a Sharpie (the purchase of a Sharpie is never  foolish :) ) and I crossed out one word and added a few more to my not very inspirational paperweight.This is how it now reads : “What could you do if you knew you could fail …but you went ahead and did it anyway…”

I think my paperweight just became truly useful .

Posted in A well lived life, Risk taking, Self awareness | Tagged , , | 6 Comments