Saturday, November 29, 2014

The Rites of Passage meal

poetrysciencetalks:a monthly salon where I serve a meal before an evening's talk and try to make the menu reflect the presentation.

This month’s poetrysciencetalk featured Mackenzie Amara, a grad student in Clinical Psychology at Teacher’s College, whose area of interest is mind-body theory. She is working on a project looking at the occurrence of major depressive episodes in emerging adults and the relationship of this to developing a spiritual worldview. She’s a tattooed Millennial with a past history of adolescent turmoil that so deeply traumatized her she lost, she feels, several years of her life. She is passionate about helping teen-agers have an easier time than she.

Youth haze as sport, gang bang, use guns, drugs, and drink to excess.  College tuition is prohibitive. There are no jobs. Dis-ease is inflamed by the belief we can fulfill ourselves acquiring material goods. High-speed communication makes us think we can know any and everything. Mackenzie thinks we are adrift in a rapidly shifting landscape with little to ground us, and blurry expectations.

Historically, ceremonial rites of passage fostered transformative growth by subjecting initiates to terrifying tests of endurance and strength. In the process aspects of the self metaphorically died only to reemerge transformed before being reintegrated in a new role within prescribed possibilities. Elders gave us just enough rope to leap without hanging, tested our mettle, then guided us back to the fold. I’m not sure this was all good, by my cultural standards it seems limited, but there must have been tremendous fulfillment completing the ritual, and comfort knowing the expectations.

The pst supper was to play with the idea of rites.  Celebration foods are easy to come by and some also serve to mark passages. Our main course was couscous with seven vegetables. Folklore has it that each grain of couscous represents a blessing while the number seven represents completeness, as G-d created the Universe in so many days. This North African dish, eaten by Muslims, Christians and Jews alike is popular at any kind of gathering—it is celebratory, humble and comforting.

Hot round pancakes eaten on Fat Tuesday symbolize the sun and represent Light and Fertility conquering Winter’s darkness. I made crispy golden discs of Spanakopita filled with herbs and greens. Also hard-boiled eggs stained red with beet juice—ersatz ritual, a show without meaning to represent our current lack of traditions. For dessert: iconic layered birthday cake with icing.

Mackenzie wondered if the meal could represent the stages traveled during a rite of passage: separation, initiation, and re-integration. I picked peanuts as a representative food. Peanuts stand variously for health, growth, and prosperity. I liked that you needed to crack them to separate the nuts. Along with a bowl of roasted peanuts I served shots of Coke with salted peanuts. This is a Southern tradition, a unique quirky regional treat passed from one generation to the next. Peanuts baptized in cola effervescence, a marriage of salty and sweet. Down south they push the nuts directly into the pop bottle before taking a long refreshing slug. Instead I served tiny plastic shot cups reminiscent of Kiddush during an Oneg Shabbat. I liked the action required to imbibe, lifting the cup, tilting back the head, simultaneous eating and drinking—made me think of Alice's trip adventures in Wonderland.  Finally, peanuts decoratively encircled the cake, integrating flavor and aesthetics into the chocolate buttery sweetness of the buttercream. 

It’s well and good thinking about food as symbol and metaphor—this menu used ingredients and the process of eating them as a kind of word play, one thing representing another. Given that the pst meal serves as a preamble to the speaker’s presentation, it was more than adequate to spark interest in the topic. I’m wondering though how food can be used in a deeper way to create an embodied experience that functions the way a rite of passage does, by transforming the initiate. 

Over time tastes change. We graduate from soft and bland to complex flavors and textures; baby food companies have lines of products based on this—but transformative eating experiences also incorporate memory and social interaction. When I think of my own life it is seldom a particular food that stands out—though there have been moments where tastes, smells or acts of cooking have roused forgotten memories, and foods have become emblematic of certain times—the Spring of first love summed up with North Indian stir-fries, my mid-twenties tasting of cigarettes and whisky spiked coffee, and so on. Done mindfully, cooking roots you in nature, and ties you to culture, family, and your body. Participating in daily family meals reinforces social values, but they’re not particularly transformative.

When I think about ways food has helped me grow while also rooting me to a community, I think of the potlucks I’ve made a part of my life each place I’ve lived since leaving my mother’s home. These are casual work-a-day evenings (sometimes as often as once a week) cooking with friends and friends of friends; the group evolving through each transition—college, marriage and divorce, growing kids, empty nest. People bring covered dishes, but also ingredients so there ends up being collaborative cooking. Children contribute too—helping in the kitchen or setting and clearing the space. Usually the kitchen fills with women--though sometimes men join.

Participating in these meals feels like stepping outside the confines of regular life into a liminal space where traditional familial roles, the division of labor, even the foods on our plates operate differently. I love that they transform supper into a feast, that they’ve created family beyond my own family (but without the tensions) and that my sons now set tables in their own homes to include their larger communities—that it is a given for them, our tradition of collectivity.

Mackenzie believes the traditional rites of passage eased transition from adolescence into adulthood. Without an equivalent in our culture we remain perpetually adolescent, unable to undertake adult responsibilities. She spoke of a need for our “Elders” to step up and catch the teen-agers as they make their precarious leap.

The space we sail through before landing is filled with such glorious potential. Its in this liminal place that transformation occurs and it is worth pausing a moment to take it all in before getting caught up in the landing. A place at the table with a shifting community of friends opens the world, fans our hunger even while offering nourishment and comfort, then sends us on our way. It too is a place worth pausing.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Wherein I make a meal that reflects Carleton Shade’s talk “Consciousness Shift as Civilization’s Salvation”

A growling Hellhound lies on the crossroads. The obvious path leads toward destruction; ecological and economic collapse, species die-backs… the end-of-the-world. Carleton is looking at the salvation potential of raised consciousness. He says some things have the potential to move us towards greater understanding; real paradigm shifts, and he holds up his hand to count them off on his fingers. Art. Education. Meditation. Psychedelics, and raw, harsh need. Maybe add war, or religion, and natural disasters too. These are the things that move us to action—in part because through them we see ourselves in relation to and as part of a larger interconnected whole. I am wondering can I throw the dog a bone? Is there a way food can help quell the beast?  Destruction still looms but if the barking dog is sated maybe we can focus on a better route, maybe stave off the final plunge.

Knee-jerk reaction has me cooking local/sustainable/organic/seasonal/low-on-the-food-chain foods, though this feel-good approach belies the complexities of our entrenched industrialized food system, global warming, first and third world disparities, vicissitudes of health. You can’t just serve up DIY, farm-to-table fare and think you’ll change the world. We tried that back in the day and what grew from it is a multi-billion dollar organics industry with its own dirty dozen and fleets of fossil-fuel gobbling trucks. Sure its done some good, but has it tipped the scale? The voting with your dollar tact only goes so far.

What if I jumped on the devils back and served up the culprits instead; monocultured commodities and over-fished prey? What if the meal talked back to “the man,” used his product but differently, co-opted corn and soy for something nobler than burgers-n-fries? * What if? This menu would exemplify the impulse to work from the inside out, which has its merits, though change this way is super slow.
*Corn is grown on approx. 80 million of 400 million crop growing acres of North American farmland. 80%+ goes to animal feed, though now there’s increasing demand of corn for Ethanol.  As for soy, the US is one of the top worldwide producers; the bulk of it becomes soybean oil, much of which fries potatoes.

Or why not appeal to the stomach to get the spirit up in arms? A meal of taste-treats tagged with the caveat of near extinction…  “Like this? Well too bad!--the honey bees are dying, the rain forest disappearing, the fish are nearly gone” This menu would be a parochial knuckle slap, effective, but cruel and decadent too.  

As no one culinary approach seems better than the other I decided to plan the menu using all three.

Grilled Banana1 Leaf packets with Malaysian spiced Tilapia2  
Kombu3 braised Kobucha4 squash with sake soy glaze 
Turmeric scented Quinoa5 cakes with sesame and coconut 
Guacamole6 with non-GMO corn chips 
Honey7 cake with ice cream
1: Bananas  are not “going extinct” as some doomsayers predict, but they are vulnerable because of mono-cropping (despite 100's of worldwide varietals—we only market one.) In the 1960’s the main varietal, the Gros Michel, was wiped out by a strain of fungus. Today’s number one varietal, the Cavensish, is also under attack by a fungicide resistant soil-borne fungus. Mono-cropping is a selfish dangerous policy based on profit rather than sustainability. The horror about bananas is revealed in the “Banana Republic” history of Chiquita and the United Fruit Company: colonization, labor and resource exploitation, etc.
2  Talapia is one of the most common farmed fish. Under-regulated farming causes pollution and GMO contamination to “wild” fish populations. 75% of farmed Talapia is raised in China which has been sited for lax controls of bacterial infection in its farmed fish populations.
3 Kombu (kelp.) Seems seaweed is good and healthful and no more endangered than are the seas, although I've heard tale of dangerous mercury levels in some harvests. Post Fukushima there was a lot of fear around Japanese imports.
4 Kabocha—this seasonal, organic winter squash was grown on a nearby farm and the shiso leaf was grown on my windowsill, but is it actually fuel efficient to have a small grower truck the squash to my farmer’s market?
Quinoa is an ancient Peruvian grain—super drought resistant and high in protein, calcium and dietary fiber. Its hypoallergenic and gluten free. Some say that because its become so popular in the US and UK and the prices are so inflated, the indigenous people of the South American highlands who depended on quinoa as a staple can no longer afford to eat it. Others think the popularity is a boon to farmers in that mostly barren part of the world. Labor issues are as sticky ecological woes.
 Avocado and lime. For some reason both of these crops have suffered in the past few years. Is it global warming, or maybe Mexican drug cartels disrupting distribution?
7  Honey. We all know we’re fucked. The bees are endangered from colony collapse caused by the over use of pesticides. Without bees to pollinate, many crops and plant are endangered.  Another ingredient in the honey cake I served was coffee, a crop that has lead to rain forest deforestation and corrupt labor practices.
After the meal a young woman came into the kitchen to thank me. "So delicious and thoughtful,” she said, “its so IMPORTANT to be AWARE of what you eat.  People need to KNOW, We all must ACT.
Her earnestness itched like bad bed bug bites. I’d so love food to be an activists’ tool but my inner cynic worries its crumbs to the wind. Or worse, an inadvertent counter-revolutionary defusing of the drive to create positive change: eat “right” and delude yourself into believing you’re off the hook for sustained political action. 
“Still” I wistfully thought, nestling grapes in a bowl, “ a thoughtful,
carefully shopped meal makes its tiny mark.” 
It's a poetryscience tradition to pass red and green grapes at the point in the evening the speaker finishes presenting and the floor opens to discussion. This time, along with the ubiquitous red and green Thompson’s of 1960-70's UFW's Grape Boycott fame, I served tart black Ribier’s, a translucent green varietal of Concord, and tiny, unbelievably sweet Niagara’s grown by happy farmers. At my presentation before supper I’d catalogued every ingredient’s sorry story, but with these I kept quiet, hoping the glory of their taste would make a better case than mine.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Water On the Road

In March I drove to the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts for a week of silent meditation.  This is the second Vipassana workshop I’ve attended but the first in this swank, three meals-a-day-with-live-Dharma-talks place. The other place played funky videos of a Burmese meditation master and served meager meals. Skeptical, critical, I hold myself protectively, not sure why I have come.  I want to be here but also don’t. Sure, I love finding where an unencumbered mind leads, I love the idea of magnified introspection, hope I’ll unearth a hidden vein of compassion, but its a vacation too and I wish I were on an artist’s retreat or eating mango and pineapples on a beach.

I unpack in minutes—lining the windowsill of my cell with mandarins and chocolates. I know I am supposed to but I cannot bring myself to turn off my phone, instead, silenced, I slip it and my notebook between bed linens. I’m not supposed to but I plan to write everyday.  Already, I am bending rules.

Day One
5:30 am: Morning bell

6:00am: Sitting meditation. I cannot grab the jumbled thoughts swirling in my head. My eyelids droop, I’m lost to sleep.

9:15am: We alternate between sitting and walking meditation at 45 minute intervals marked by bells. So busy.

10:45 am: Walking meditation is hateful. The others in the room take slow deliberate steps, their concentration irks me. I place one foot before the other, ten paces in each direction. In the common room stained glass Jesus’ greet me at both turns. In one window he breaks bread. He prays in the other.  I count the paces between them as if it is news, or catch myself repeating the last word of a phrase that must have crossed my mind. The word shatters into phonemes. I find my fingers spelling the fragments in ASL. Try as I might I cannot still to silence

1:00 pm: For an hour each day we practice by doing. I cut vegetables as per the Chefs directions, whispering with head nods and half words to preserve a semblance of noble silence. The striking of the knife on the board hushes stray thoughts and calls me to attention.

5:00pm: At mealtime we bow to the Chef who rings the supper bell. We fill our bowls and eat in silence, furtively watching, or at least I am. The carrots I cut earlier float in the soup.

7:30pm: Yawning, yawning through the Dharma talk, cannot focus, cannot fight the sleepiness. Will Roshi’s words become my dreams?

9:00pm: Pacing a skewed figure eight I wear a pattern in the rug. I am fretful and angry, unwilling to give into the moment, fearful of the vulnerability of my body. So much easier to tango with illusory thoughts. Less boring too.

10pm: exhausted, I cannot wait to sleep.

Day Two
5:30am: morning bell

6:30 am: The women here seem quirky and needy and I do not like the way they chew—some with eyes closed and such deliberation I want to slap them.

10:45 am walking: Instead, I go to my room to write. I long for eloquence but have little to say. I write about my mother’s Parkinson’s, hoping this week of contemplation will lead to greater patience. I’ve been curt with her lately—she cannot express herself coherently. Her mind is held prisoner inside her body. Sometimes she hallucinates but sometimes she’s still here. I forget to wait for her opinion, some days I cannot wait long enough for it to come.

1:00pm: Rectangular blocks of tofu teeter precariously. One block at a time my knife glides slicing five slices one way, quartering the other, then cutting in half. The towering stack transforms to a mound of bite-sized pieces.

3:45pm walking: I bundle myself and walk outside. In the sun snowmelt streams alongside the road, a glinting rushing squiggle next to a faded painted line.

6:15pm sitting: I have the pillows just right, tucked under and between and sit with relative ease. Before I know it, the bell rings.

7:00pm walking: Evaporating puddles dot the road like memories, or are they disconnected thoughts? Lingering mineral deposits leave faint trails.

Day Three
9:15 am walking: Refrozen ice melt forms a crystal skin above pockets of air. I walk gingerly shattering thin ice.

10:00 am sitting:  Still fighting. Sleep is winning. I wake angry and disappointed.

1:00pm: A bucket of onions. Cut off root and stem ends. Nick the skin with the tip of the knife and peel. Cut in half lengthwise and lay the cut sides down. Slice evenly across the onions’ rings. Change angles. Cradle the onion and cut 5 or 6 slices with the rings, perpendicular to the first cuts so that the onion falls into a ½” dice. Repeat.

2:15pm sitting: I imagine myself hidden inside a circular brick tower only big enough to hold my chair. I am a New Yorker cartoon. A word bubble emerges from the top of the wall. “Ha ha” it says, “I deal with loss better than you.”

3:00pm: Bundled, I glide along the thawing stream. Water seeps from the edges.

4:30pm: Daily Yoga with a funny teacher who fills the hall with laughter. A woman in front of me cradles a gimpy arm. The woman at my right has good balance. What is she, 70, 75?  The woman across, sitting in a chair, has some kind of eating issue. I’ve watched her in the dining hall as she mashes forkfuls of food then takes tiny bites. Throat cancer I imagine. There is a woman with the limp who dresses in pseudo Eastern clothing and has a haughty pinch to her lips. She raises my hackles. A cough is going round.

7:00pm: Hoar frost at dusk. I turn right after the fire hydrant onto a dirt road. Someone else must have walked here when the road was wet. Now, I walk upon frozen footprints. My footsteps leave no trace. I find myself narrating my present. Below this, I am counting steps.

5:30am: I wake before the bell. Its 12 degrees. I answer emails from my phone. If I walk outside at all it will be in another direction. Bad enough I write instead of walking, that I fall asleep while meditating; now I’ve become attached to the stream, anticipating its constant change. The opposite of be here now. Instead, I go with the flow.

11:30am sitting: Bring awareness to each sensation, thought, observation. Listen to the undercurrents, the background noise. Note them. Observe judgments and doubt. Note them. Come back into the present. Do not fall asleep.

2:15pm sitting: Am thinking through all the illnesses and deaths. Their scars mark the landscape of my body. My father’s heart disease beats in my heart, my sister’s cancer lurks in the darkness of my bowels. One day, any day, I too will succumb, or worse, lose strength and mind, yet linger.
 What if I lured these demons to light, hosed them down, hung them refreshed like laundry on a line? Unfolding my bodies map I mark off a DMZ hoping to contain and isolate my fear.  I am thinking through the metaphors; housework or war.

3:45pm: I’ve concocted the most delightful tea—hibiscus mixed with ginger. Steep a bag of each in a steaming cup of water. Add honey to balance the floral peppery tartness.

9:15am: A new stream flows from the same old snow. I walk with my eyes on the ground, searching for a source and see no beginning, only accumulation. I notice here, right here the stream moves forward. What is this called, its head? My steps match the rate of flow, slowing to a near standstill while cracks in the road fill to the brim and then forcefully, seemingly suddenly, raising first just above the surface, spills over and spreads. Air bubbles caught in the stream congregate round twigs and pebbles. They merge and burst.  The whole a world of is own set dancing by the vibrations of a passing car. A leaf blows across our path.

1:00pm: Today we cut celery and leeks for tonight’s Vichyssoise, the leeks in half lengthwise, and then into ½” moons. Today’s chef is compulsive and exacting.  Her voice is grating, but what’s it to me? The celery is fresh and crisp. The knife is sharp. She has us trim the jointed leafy tips and coarsest bottoms then flip the stalks concave to slice, cutting against the hollow rather than into it as I’ve always done.

7:00pm: Damp grey dusk. Dirty puddles dot the pitted road.

10:00pm: Note to self: Am I more involved with my stream then in practicing meditation? What began as a chance encounter has become a search for a narrative arc.

7:15am: Tire treads have etched patterns into fresh snow that melts before my eyes. The distance is blue grey mist. Trees cloaked in frost weep icy droplets onto the ground. People suffer needlessly, injustice abounds. We are poisoning the earth. I thrill anticipating the rush of run-off along the side of a road.

10:45am: A river, its snaking body shimmers in a moirĂ© pattern of light.  Suddenly, it branches and crosses the road. Why did the river cross the road? Why to get to the other side.

3:00pm: Returns to the Sangha on all these walks has been swift, dutifully mindful of steps and breath, tinged with worry least I miss the bell. Today instead I meander, splashing against the flow. In the hush between the steps, reflected clouds race across the stream. My next step obscures reflection.

7:15am: Bundled, I slip my phone in my pocket hoping to photograph the stream but wouldn’t you know: nothing save a few muddied puddles that do not catch the light.

Noon: I am driving already, dialing into a weekly business meeting, looking for a place I might pull over to snap a picturesque puddle before I hit the highway home.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Post-prandial Bliss and the Oneness of Ohm

In December pst welcomed Dr. Pooja Lakshmin, a neuroscientist who studies brain function at the Rutgers University Orgasm Laboratory where they study the correspondences between brains and sexual stimulation. Subjects volunteer to crawl into an MRI chamber and bring themselves to climax, or sometimes bring a partner who strokes them into climax while scientists monitor which parts of their brain lights up.

But Pooja came not to speak about her day job—instead she spoke about OM, orgasmic meditation, a form of meditation she practices where a partner stimulates the top left quadrant of your clitoris (this area has the most nerve endings) for fifteen minutes. During this time both stimulator and stimulated hyper-vigilantly maintains awareness of every aspect of their bodies and their minds. The point is not to achieve orgasm though sometimes, before you get good at OM, orgasm is a side result.  

Eager questions peppered with giggles followed Pooja’s talk. People want to know:
+ If there are differences in brain activity during male and female orgasms (not so much.)

+If there’s a difference in the male and female brains (yes—men have more grey matter while women have larger language centers--though I’m not sure what, if anything this means.)

+What role fantasy plays in arousal (plenty) and climax (not so much—climax is an involuntary reaction, albeit a pleasurable one, to physical stimulus.)
+  Are there differences in brain activity between self-stimulation, with or without a dildo (Pooja says dildos are the equivalent of jack hammers) and partnered interactions (yes—because with partners surrender happens, which activates, or actually deactivates parts of the brain.)

Try as I might, my brain has difficulty keeping track of the brains complex landscape: two hemispheres divided into multiple regions—each with its own distinct characteristic. Some activities and purposes cross between regions or express in multiple areas at once. The Limbic system, which sexual pleasure lights particularly brightly houses aspects of memory and emotion. Simultaneously, as arousal builds, activity in the critical, analytical frontal-cortex dims. I suppose this is evidence of surrender, or it’s possible brain waves emanating from one region affects the weather in another. 

It is believed meditation leads to clarity and an enhanced capacity for concentration, the brain firing full tilt. I wonder though what mixing these two different brain states, the all “on” of meditation with the on/off of sexual stimulation leads to besides an endorphin colored afterglow and a wish for the greater good? It was hard for Pooja to say.

Choosing a menu for the event I tried to steer clear of dirty jokes though temptation got the best me in stuffed Medjool dates that lay prone next to skewer-stiffened sauce-drenched satays. The centerpiece of the meal was Mapo Tofu, a dish described as numbing, tender, hot, and spicy—the Sichuan peppercorns that are central to the dish creates an anesthetizing tingle that allows one to perceive the floral undertones of the searing chilies that flavor the tofu. It was served with brown rice drizzled with tahini and flax seed—a staple at meditation retreats, and a salad of lively biting mustard greens modulated with succulent fleshy persimmon.

In my weekly writing class the teacher gives a prompt, then sets a timer for five minutes. This weeks: “You turn a key, open a door, cross a threshold into a kitchen—what do you smell cooking? How does this make you feel?” Charged with taping into stream-of-consciousness my hand stalls; I am thinking: I walk through the door of an empty house, live alone; I am the cook, if I was out nothing’s cooking. Glaring facts short-circuit an imagined lick of scent. Broth? Bread? Burnt sugar? The sense memory is supposed to generate a story. The scent, generating “remembrances of things passed” percolates desire.

It is not the thought of an old Aunt’s tea-soaked cookie that fires up my brain. I imagine opening my door to find a cook in my kitchen wiping buttered hands onto a worn linen cloth before reaching out to greet me. I thrill at the thought of relinquishing culinary control. Is it the food or are the food and the cook rolled to one? Is it scent that lights up the same parts of my brain as clitoral stimulation?

Orgasm is an involuntary reaction caused by physical stimulation. Desire makes it better, or more intense but at some point the conscious mind (though not the brain waves) stills. Is hunger similar; it too is an involuntary reaction stimulated and intensified by the smell of something good to eat. The smell drives the story but at some point the story no longer matters. Instinct takes over until you’ve had your fill. 

After class I prepare a simple supper—yesterday’s soup made from the bones of last weeks’ roast, thickened with 2 cups of frozen beans from Christmas Eve’s cassoulet. A sliced avocado with lime and olive oil offers bright accompaniment.  

Having cooked, having eaten, having sponged away the crumbs I turn off lights and head upstairs. Rising scents trapped in the stairwell, living ghosts of supper greet me as I climb towards the comfort of my bed.

By morning these lingering scents will have dissipated but in the moment they spark not desire, for I am on the other side of hunger, but a sense of well-being. Is this akin to post-coital bliss, or the oneness generated by ohm? No longer tied to visceral instinct the after-scent becomes sensual evidence lighting or maybe dimming region of my brain. In the moment the scents transform, becoming memories almost impossible to recall until new scents call them forward as a point of comparison. One scent, tying me to others.