This morning was going to be special. I had a couple of very ripe bananas pleading to be transmogrified into home baked banana bread. And, not having baked for some time now, I went to bed already savoring the early morning baking adventure.
There is a special pleasure in baking at this time of day that you can’t possibly access any other time. As you shuffle your way from the bedroom to the kitchen, the stillness of the still dark house is palpable, punctuated only by the steady hum of the refrigerator compressor. The flick of the light switch basically engages a complicity between you and the silence, the darkness outside, the cold air (if you are fortunate to have a central) and the aloneness. Birds are starting to wake up in anticipation of the morning outside, but the light of the kitchen demarcates your refuge from the unknown night space.
As you get your mug of ‘earl grey’ going, you take a first look at your recipe and begin to line up your utensils on the work table and the ingredients on the counter behind you, the mise en place. The tea is ready, you put Cat Steven on the turntable in the other room (low, you don’t want to break the spell, just accentuate it, and you don’t want to wake anyone else up). And you’re ready, too. And then it is only you and your endeavor.
Maybe it is as simple as it reminding me of my 2:00 am baking shifts at the bakery decades ago, maybe it is the power of rituals. But it is not memory, it is rather locating you in a special ‘place’. Maybe it is the intensity of the focus, for a while there is just you and your being.
I am one for rituals. It did take some time and Wanda’s coaching. Normally, Sunday mornings I will get out of bed while still dark, start my incense, fire up Pandora on a special station I save only for Sundays (Chopin or Satie are my favorites for this), go through my short yoga routine, get my big mug of strong tea and then settle down to check the news online. At the first sign of light you go outside to fetch the NYT before an enterprising passer-by beat you to it (it has happened, the price of living in an open neighborhood, and who can blame them?). You save that music and that incense just for that day. That’s how routines turn into rituals. Wanda taught me that.
Back when we were just starting out building a family decades ago, I was still in kind of an iconoclastic rebellious stage. If it smelled like ‘tradition’, I was boycotting it. Christmas included. A young punk.
But rituals (something as ridiculous and kitsch as putting a real tree festooned with all kinds of tacky glass trinkets in the middle of your living room), Wanda showed me, do not have any meaning by themselves. It is the repetition year after year and only on the specific occasion what actually imbue them with meaning (in our CompLit classes later we discovered that phenomenon has a name: a leitmotif) as it creates a continuum that connects us to a longer term perspective, a wider scope narrative, and a more ample definition of our selves. And that is what tradition should be. But, maybe more important, is the fact that for that moment you are focused on your endeavor, you are mindful and in the moment. For that, obviously, you have to pay attention.
This past weekend I had the pleasure of having some long conversations with one of my favorite nieces who I don’t see frequently enough and who visited us for a couple of days. First let me tell you that I have been blessed with a set of nieces smart, tough and sweet like nothing else. Every time I have a chance to share some time with any of them I have to stop to consider how lucky I am.
But this one in particular shares with me a curiosity for eastern philosophies and questioning the foibles of human nature. We were discussing how you navigate difficult periods in our lives. I was telling her how important it is to cultivate good memories because they are like a savings account for tough times. In darker times (of which I have had my share), I ‘make a withdrawal’ and appease my soul to get me through those dark nights of the soul: ‘It is not always like this, we have been happy and we will again‘. I go back to walk with Diego as a baby to the Alice in Wonderland statue in Central Park, or the Duck Pond in Stony Brook, or the students’ gardens in Santa Barbara. Back a couple of decades ago, while my business was going through a very difficult moment, another local business owner going through a similar situation actually killed himself (a permanent solution to a temporary situation). I went to my safe spaces.
And then I thought, to be able to do that, you have to make your deposits. And for that you have to pay attention. Live that moment with all your senses. Be mindful. Because, later, remembering will be more than recalling memories, it aims to put you in that special ‘space’ you occupied then and there. A programmatic madeleine.
Then the bread was in the oven and I cleaned my utensils. May not sound strange by now, one of the things I specially enjoy about baking at home is cleaning up: I like to carefully brush with lots of soap the mixer blades, rub dry with a towel all the wooden parts of cutters and slicers, scrub and then scrape the butcher block table and put everything away. Washing the large bowl is a special treat. The goal is to make the kitchen look like absolutely nothing has just happened there.
Cat Stevens is long past done. I go over to my office and light a cone of sandalwood incense and start Pandora. Today I decide to go with Glenn Campbell first. I remember how as a teenager I would lie on my bed in the middle of a very hot Puerto Rican summer afternoon and listened to Wichita Lineman. This island boy had no idea of counties or how an iced telegraph line would look or where Wichita was. But with my limited English I completely understood him and felt with and for him.
I could never make out what the hell Mick Jagger was saying.
Then it was time to wake up Wanda with her coffee and the paper. So, I changed to the Satie station.
The bread turned out great and we stayed in bed late reading the paper from cover to cover and having another cup of coffee and one more piece of banana bread. And then another. All the way ’till noon.