Thursday, December 31, 2009

Sometimes I like a good cab

One spectacularly beautiful morning last spring, I took a cab to work. Everything was green in that primal way that makes green my favorite color. It is unbelievable that a color can take hold of one's heart as green does mine. Especially in Baltimore, and especially in spring. When I got into the cab, I was greeted by reggae, full-blast. What better music for a gorgeous May morning than reggae. I felt as though the cab was practically skipping down the streets of my quiet, early-morning neighborhood. The cab driver was equally lively, with a wide smile and very white teeth. He sort of glowed. Happy. I like Happy. We exchanged pleasantries, and for a couple of minutes, shared a peaceable silence, bopping our heads along to the music. I couldn't place the artist, but the sound was pure joy. We commented on the beauty of the day, and the driver mentioned that these days were gifts and that no one notices the beauty because we're too busy lamenting that we always see the same old thing. He then noted, "Jesus gave us this and we squander it." I listened more closely to the words of the reggae song: "He is Risen." "Hallelujah." I asked the driver, "Is this Christian reggae?", to which he replied "Yes, yes. It is! It is glorious! Praise Jesus."

To say that "I am not religious, but I consider myself spiritual" is almost cliche these days. When people inquire about my faith, I am now inclined to say that I am a student of all faiths. I love them equally. And I appreciate, admire, sometimes even bask in the spirituality of others, as I did in the cab that morning. The driver was delighted to learn that I taught religion as part of my history course, and he quoted the Qu'ran with the same ease that he recited a passage from the Book of Mark (my favorite of the Gospels). He spoke of the presence of God in everything, and he equated Buddha with Jesus. I felt as if I had found my own personal guru.

When we reached my place of work, I thanked him for the wonderful conversation, and said that I hoped I would see him again someday. I asked him his name. "Isaac," he said. And then he stopped, the smile gone for a flash, and said "You will have a son someday." The grin returned, and he ejected the Christian reggae CD. "You have this," he said. When I protested, his smile broadened and he gently said, "But Paige, it is not mine to give. You are supposed to have it, and maybe it is just that we were both in the right place at the right time."

Huh. I suppose sometimes it IS that simple.

When I moved to Baltimore, without a car, and with questionable skills behind the wheel of one, I hadn't really considered the issue of transportation. In my naivete, I assumed that like all cities I had visited, Baltimore would be easy to navigate on foot and with the aid of that marvelous gift to the urban lifestyle, public transport. In my estimation, public transport is the lifeline of a city. It connects neighborhoods, it brings people together, and it makes us all have to learn how to live with one another during rush hour, when the subway is full, stopped interminably, and the subway car smells like chicken wings, or worse, the heat of a New York summer. In my five years of living in New York, I never stopped loving the subway. I enjoyed seeing the same people on my commute. I relished the time to read a book at the beginning and end of every workday. I wrote a lot. But to be honest, most of the time, I just people-watched. I witnessed everything from the spontaneous engagement of a hearing-impaired couple seated across from me to a frantic mother searching each subway car for her missing infant daughter (only to later learn from the evening news that she was responsible for her death). Subways are a barometer of how a society functions and they provide valuable lessons for how we can all learn to function better.

There are so many things that I love about Baltimore, but one of its inherent challenges is its lack of good public transportation.
I have lived in Baltimore for almost ten years now after moving from Brooklyn, New York. While I was primarily a subway girl, late nights working on the Upper East Side sometimes necessitated a midnight cab ride into Brooklyn.The streets of New York - at any hour of the day - scream goldfinch yellow. New York cabs are always there for you - like the postman, sort of. I loved the experience of learning how to effortlessly flag down a cab, how to tell if a meter was "hot" (i.e. if the meter was charging the passenger more than it should), and to this day, I am proud that I rode in one of the few checker cabs left roaming the New York streets. Cabs had me at hello.

Now, in Baltimore, principally because of the public transportation conundrum, I take cabs on a semi-regular basis, something that few people here understand. Baltimore is a city of drivers. I fall into the staunchly pedestrian category (in the truest sense of the phrase). While I recognize that this poses many challenges, I also willingly admit that I am something of a taxi-cab addict and I delight in my cab experiences. And it isn't because the cabs are readily available on my tree-lined, Norman Rockwell street in Baltimore county. They are not. It isn't because they quickly appear after I have called the cab company (a practice that took some getting used to after having perfected my cab-hailing skills in New York). They tend not to. It isn't because they are inexpensive. While I spend less on cabs than one would on a tank of gas, they are still an expense.

Put simply, I love the conversations, and the people with whom I am privileged to spend ten minutes of my day. Perhaps because I know that I only have this short snippet of time with them, I pursue conversation with a tenacity of purpose that over the years, has taught me about the capacity to share feelings, opinions, and indeed, experiences with someone I have never met, and may never see again. Cabs have become the more intimate surrogate for the very thing that I loved most about the subway: interactions with strangers. Except that now, so many of the cab drivers are not strangers. I know their opinions on everything from politics to relationships to the current economic crisis and how it is impacting the cab industry. I know their heartaches, their interests, their loves, and their idiosyncrasies. I know their stories.

Tony, a cab driver I used to see quite frequently and whom I would call for rides, was recently out of jail for burglary when I met him. He fell in love with one of the guards and they were married soon after he was released from prison. He works days and she works nights. Driving a cab was the only job he could find, and he was angry about that. He quit during the summer and text messaged me, telling me he wouldn't be able to give me rides anymore. I didn't expect to see him or hear from him again, and I worried that he might be back in jail. Ronny had a daughter who needed a kidney transplant. He worked three jobs to help cover the cost of her treatment while she waited for a donor. We shared stories of our love of dogs, and he showed me pictures of his 8 Jack Russells and his daughter, a beautiful young woman with dimples and bright blue eyes. Recently, I saw an article about her on CNN's website. She was the first patient to successfully undergo a new kidney transplant operation. I wanted to call Ronny and share my best wishes. It's somewhat challenging to become attached to people and have no way of contacting them.

This past Christmas season was not the most relaxing holiday I have enjoyed in recent memory. Two things, however, made me believe in the power of hope and the goodness of people. The first - Tony sent me a text message saying simply, "Merry Christmas and bless you for your kindness." The second - after truly believing that I would never see Isaac again (because in truth, that one interaction was somewhat lifechanging), he picked me up one extremely cold morning. "Hello Paige," he greeted me with a familiarity that took my breath away. "Bless this beautiful weather!," he exclaimed, as if the trees were shining green and the sky was blue and the sun brought everything into sharper focus. As if it wasn't gray, and it wasn't freezing, and it wasn't drizzling. As if the trees were not completely leafless.

As if I hadn't been squandering this moment. As if faith is everywhere, especially in cabs and subways.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

"Pay attention to the dough...try to listen to what the dough is telling me."

"So I tried one of my biscuits... It was so good. It was buttery and flaky. And it kind of melted in your mouth.
And it was wheaty - it actually had whole wheat flour in it...
And so it tasted like wheat, like the earth, like the sun, like the air, like water.
You know, there's like poetry again, you know.
There's the possibility of connection with life itself."

- Zen Chef Edward Espe Brown in "How to Cook Your Life".

I cannot bake bread. I buy bread-baking cookbooks, flour, and yeast - none of which manage to cross paths in my kitchen. When someone tells me that they can make bread, my regard for them immediately skyrockets. They are magicians, they are lifegivers, they bring us the bread to break and therefore the solace and communion that punctuate gatherings of families, communities, faiths, and nations. My fascination with bread-baking has prompted clandestine tours through the bustling Saturday-night-dinner-rush kitchen of an Indian restaurant to behold the bread chef making naan at a dizzying speed (he really didn't understand why I wanted to watch him spin dough on a hot drum).
Later, fueled by my full-blown obsession with injera, the improbably spongey bread that is the staple of every Ethiopian meal, I spent a small fortune and the better part of one summer fermenting batch after batch of dough in a woeful attempt to master the artful combination of yeast, warm water, and teff flour. A conversation with an Ethiopian cab driver about my botched efforts troubled him to the extent that he asked his wife to make some injera for me and he dropped it by my apartment building the next week. The cab driver got it. He understood. Bread is love. Seriously.

I am fortunate to have been born into a family of bakers. My mother, famed for her desserts, makes the most complicated of birthday cakes look effortless and my father's creativity in the kitchen is legendary. Sunday mornings frequently held two things in store for an early-to-rise five-year old: breakfast with my father, followed by watching him make bread (later in the day, he would often prepare a soup to accompany the bread for our Sunday dinner).The rotation included herb bread, beer batter bread, cheese breads, and peasant loaves. Sunday bread baking was for the most part an activity conducted in the morning quiet, our silence interrupted only sporadically by our game of identifying different bird songs from outside the kitchen window. While my father kneaded and pounded and blanketed the kitchen counter in a fine coat of flour, I watched. Happily. For my patience and occasional assistance, I was given the first slice of warm bread, which held the combination of novelty and comfort in each bite. We did this instead of church. For me, it felt as reverent as taking communion. I loved the silence, and I adored the time with my father, whose fierce love for his family is often expressed through his cooking. I also found repeated joy in the religion of quiet togetherness baked into this Sunday ritual. It was simple. It was humble. It was honest.

Twenty years later, in the farmhouse kitchen of my then-boyfriend's mother, I would watch her make loaves of bread at a time, without a recipe. Her movements - from counter to butcher block to oven - always felt like a familiar and comforting choreography. Her potter's hands, which reminded me of tree-roots, beat the dough with a rhythm that was positively meditative. She had a tattoo of a Corgi on her arm, and each time she kneaded the dough, the muscle beneath her tattoo moved. I liked watching the Corgi dance. I liked how her pottery and baking were extensions of one another, and I liked eating her bread off of plates she herself made. In my years of knowing her, I basked in her serenity and her gentleness of spirit. I attributed the fact that I never heard her utter a harsh word or tone to the solace and comfort she found in using her hands to such great ends. I could taste it in her baking, which to me, was enlightened. It has been more than ten years since I have stood in that kitchen, and I still miss her bread. I haven't found anything that tastes remotely like it. Nor would I want to.

It is not surprising that I would marry a man whose mother can bake with her eyes closed, a woman who keeps her native Austria close to her heart and by her side in everything she creates. I have a lot to learn from her, and this is one thing I love so much about those who bake - they give so freely. It is also not altogether astounding that bread would work its way into my nightscape, but I was surprised that in a recent dream, I wasn't a child again eating my father's bread, nor was I seated in an Ethiopian restaurant sopping up Doro Wat with generous tears of injera. Rather, I was making bread. Standing at a long wooden table, I kneaded my way through countless pillows of dough, letting them rise, then punching the dough down again with a graceful, staccato precision that I lack in almost all areas of my life. The dream coincided with a period of heightened stress, illness, and general malaise. I always take these things as signs of something.

The next morning, my dearest friend (who had no knowledge of my dream) recommended that I watch a documentary:
How to Cook Your Life. I was supposed to be participating in a Day of Mindfulness with Thich Nhat Hanh in New York City, but instead, was bed-bound in Baltimore with the H1N1 flu. I was feeling sorry for myself. I was cranky. I was furious with Ticketmaster, who refused to refund me for the cost of my tickets, and my spirit kicked and screamed like a feverish five-year-old, twisted and knotted in her bedsheets. Thich Nhat Hanh, himself recently hospitalized with an acute respiratory infection, would not have been impressed by my inner grace. I didn't feel like watching a documentary because it would require concentration and I was too busy concentrating on how upset I was. A documentary would only distract me. Jeesh.

That said, when Gaby recommends that I read or watch something, I do it. Dutifully. I didn't know the premise behind How to Cook Your Life when I streamed it on Netflix. I knew that my best friend told me I MUST watch it NOW. So I did.

Edward Brown (the principle voice of the documentary) is a master chef and renowned baker of bread. He helped open Greens Restaurant in San Francisco. My copies of two of his cookbooks are well-loved in that they are earmarked, splattered, highlighted, and still contain hand-scribbled menus that I put together when I was in college fifteen years ago- one for Gaby's birthday, no less. Edward Brown is also a Zen Master. The documentary, which explores the Zen practice of preparing and eating food, puts forth the notion that our relationship with food and with making food is a lifelong enterprise of mindfulness, practice, and joy. Zen philosophy embraces the belief that if a battered, imperfect teapot can heat water and serve tea each and every day, so can we, in our own imperfections, knead the dough, cut the vegetables, honor the food that we make. It's a relationship based upon perfectly balanced reciprocity. As one chef so succintly put it, "We're cooking the food, but in terms of practice, the food is cooking us."

Maybe, for me, this is what is so equally intimidating and tantalizing about baking bread. It strips one of pride, of material worth, and even our notions of competence because we MUST surrender to the possibility that the dough won't rise, or the climate will do something funny - we acquiesce to that which is often beyond our control. And yet we need bread, so many of us, for the place that it occupies at our table and in our rituals. It replaces want with just plain living. The act of making bread reminds us of what we forget to tell ourselves. Eating bread - for me a sacred and cherished gift - connects us to what is essential: the earth, the air, the water, the sun, and the love that a well-baked loaf of bread provides. Thich Nhat Hanh wrote that "there is no enlightenment outside of daily life," and while I missed the opportunity to experience a walking meditation with him, perhaps in the end, daily life is what I needed more.

At thirty-five, I like to think that I have a sense of how to cultivate happiness, and how to nourish that happiness for myself and alongside the people I love. What I have learned to appreciate about this premise is how quickly it may be undone, reversed, turned on its side so that the process of loving and living is always new. Happiness doesn't have a formula; it either is or it isn't. Bread and the ritual of baking bread each act as metaphors of one simple, stripped-bare truth: we make ourselves in what we do. A
s the bread-baker in How to Cook Your Life serenely explained, "People say 'how are you doing?', and I say, I'm baking."

I firmly believe that all we need is already at home in our hearts. And most of the time, a half a loaf of bread is enough.

"Someone who goes with half a loaf of bread to a small place that fits like a nest around him, someone who wants no more, who's not himself longed for by anyone else,
He is a letter to everyone. You open it.
It says, Live." - Rumi