How to Achieve Immortality (it involves pie)

“Its meaning is in the doing.” –Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Water Dancer

Oh, this book. It’s on another level. It’s strange, and . . . I like it. When the mayor says these words to our narrator, Hiram, it’s one of those moments that make us pause. We know something big is happening. I’m still working my way through the book (only on page 93 right now), and there are these little wisps of smoky magic throughout. I’m intrigued, and hopefully my 9-month-old will allow me a window of reading time more than three minutes at a time.*

(*Note: NOT a recommended reading strategy, but if it’s all you have, you take it. I hear people tell me — ad nauseam — that they simply don’t have any time to read. And as I look at them with an ever-so-slight eyebrow raise, I think to myself, “Wow, to not have five or ten minutes in a day. That’s something.” And I would wager that something is in fact not true. Turn your phone off. Try again. Goodbye.)

But aside from my sentiments on reading (and how if you’re a human you better be figuring out how to do it — hint: open book, look at words, turn pages), I love this quote because of its — you guessed it — simple truth.

Meaning is in the doing.

We’ve heard it before: don’t just talk the talk, walk the walk; actions speak louder than words; practice what you preach; etc. But what these familiar phrases lack is meaning. And that meaning element is good. Really good.

So what is the meaning of your life? Simple. Look at what you’re doing. I don’t care what you believe or what your Enneagram is or even what you say. What do you do?

Do you believe in God and/or the Bible and/or Jesus but find yourself gossiping with co-workers, holding onto grudges, dwelling on and perpetuating negativity?

Do you look for the cutesy-tootsie Enneagram infographics on Instagram and immediately post to stories OMG? It’s real life if it’s on your stories. We all know that.

Do you say you want your kids to get the best education when they never see you reading (but instead see you as a screen-zombie to your phone)?

Do you want a happy life but go to bed each night exhausted and drained, wondering when the next weekend/break/hiatus/sabbatical will be?

I’m a teacher, and it’s easy to fall into the trap of living for the weekend (and the random government days off and Thanksgiving break — ON IT!! — and Christmas break and spring break and summer break). But, hello — what am I doing each weekday to be happy?

Sometimes I like to sit down and think about what I do in a day. I suggest you do the same. So let me walk through a typical “school day”:

  1. Wake up a little earlier than I need so that I can enjoy a quiet few minutes with my cup of coffee and a book.
  2. Do all the necessary personal preparations for school. I have a simple wardrobe, so dressing never takes a long time. I don’t wear much makeup or do much of anything with my hair, so, again, less time. I think the key here is not worrying too much about how I look.
  3. I ride my bike the almost-mile to school. As I ride down my street, I often see the beautiful sunrise and thank God for the morning greeting. I see a couple of folks fairly regularly that I wave to and say “Good morning!” Rick is my regular walker, and we’ve actually stopped to meet each other since we see each other nearly every morning. When it’s cold (in the 40’s — I don’t bike under 40 degrees fahrenheit; I have standards, people), my regulars and I exchange the knowing nod of it’s cold and WE OUT HERE.
  4. I get to school with plenty of time to spare so I never feel rushed in the mornings.
  5. I enjoy chatting with my homeroom students. They’re ninth graders and crazy. And I love them . . . almost all the time.
  6. I write my curriculum based on what I love. So classes are never dull. (Does it get tedious doing the same lesson again and again in a day? Sure, but the students are so different that even with the same lesson, the variation still prevails.)
  7. I enjoy my lunch with adults. This is a time I get away from the students. Some teachers let students eat in their rooms, but that just isn’t for me. I need a balance of teenagers and adults in my day, and chatting with adults at lunch is a needed respite. (This year has been a little different because I actually bike home every day for lunch to nurse my baby. But I always get to chat with my husband, and he is — I would say, for the most part — an adult, so it counts.)
  8. I try not to stay late at school. I’ve found that if I’m absolutely overwhelmed with papers to grade or lessons to write or fill-in-the-blank to do, I’m actually not being efficient at my job. Even if you’re not a teacher, see if this applies to you. Work smarter, not harder. (Hey, just because you’re that person who stays super late every day at whatever job you’re at doesn’t mean that you’re actually a good employee. WE HAVE GOT TO STOP THE MADNESS OF EXALTING THE RULE-FOLLOWING ROBOT-OVERWORKER.)
  9. I ride my bike home, sometimes in the rain, and enjoy noticing weird and interesting things on the path. Like a huge spider in a huge spider web that I have to swerve to avoid smashing my face into. Sometimes students or parents or coworkers give a little honk and wave as they drive by. It’s nice.
  10. I enjoy my evening with my family. We try not to make plans so that our weeknights are open to our every whim. Whims normally include trips to Trader Joe’s, maybe a dinner out at Moe’s on kids night, the library, or — the craziest whim — staying home. The husband has a fire going in the fireplace when the temps get way, way down into the fifties here in sunny Florida.

No crazy tips on how to be happy except to say that my life isn’t crazy. I do my best at living life, and that includes spending the most time doing what I love and being with people I love. Being a mom and wife and teacher? Love that about my life. Reading lots of books and writing (on a mostly-weekly basis)? Also love that.

So my last blog post was about my grandmother’s lemon cream pie. Since today’s blog post is all about doing, I thought I’d update you on the pie progress.

PIE PROGRESS UPDATE: I made the pie. I made the pie on Wednesday night, chilled it overnight, and brought it to our friend’s Thanksgiving celebration on Thursday. I thought that I hadn’t whipped the cream long enough for it to set properly and was absolutely terrified that it would turn into a gloppy pudding mess as soon as it was cut into. You know, when you lift out the slice, and the rest of the pie just sort of oozes into the open space and globs it right up? Yeah, that’s what I imagined. So I downplayed my pie to everyone at the feast, and when it came time to cut, I prayed “DEAR JESUS DO YOUR WORK HERE IN THIS PIE.” As I ever so carefully lifted the slice out, the whipped topping just held.

AND IT WAS MAGNIFICENT.

In fact, when I truly beheld its magnificence (in my mouth), I was transported back to my grandmother’s table (with all her fine china and crystal because, you know, she fancy) in Palo Alto, California. And I said a little prayer of thanks, and scarfed that pie down.

The point is, I wrote about the pie. I found the pie recipe. I read the pie recipe. I thought about the pie. But it wasn’t until I actually made the pie that meaning glinted through (in the form of a crisp, buttery crust, a tart lemon cream, and a light and fluffy whipped cream with little shreds of lemon zest on top). It was nice to think about the pie and read the recipe and reminisce about my grandmother. But it was joy making the pie and sheer decadence eating it.

I also brought some of my homemade sourdough bread to the feast, in the forms of a fougasse and four baguettes. Again, I like to talk about bread. And I like to write about bread. But it’s the doing that brings the true satisfaction. And I think satisfaction goes hand in hand with meaning. Like my read-more-books-talks with adults and the I-simply-have-no-time syndrome, people love to talk to me about bread and how they’re “going to try to start making bread.” But then, inevitably, they catch themselves and admit that they “simply have no time.”

Really, could we all probably come up with *all the things* that *take up all the time* and actually not accomplish much in life? YEP. So figure out what it is you want to do in life and do it. Or figure out what you want your kids seeing you doing and do it. Case in point: There’s a baby on my back. Right now. As I write. That baby is just soaking in the writing vibes. Now in fairness, he is asleep in a baby carrier on my back. And that is not normally how I write. But my husband is *doing* a bonfire and campout tonight with first-born and second-born. (They’re in the backyard in a tent. Bless my husband’s soul.) So I’m on baby duty 100% tonight.

When I try to think about what I want to do in life, I try to think about what I’ll remember (for good reasons or at least some hearty laughs) later in life — or what my husband or kids or students will remember later in life. Bonus: Doing things that people will remember will create your legacy. And you will achieve immortality as your deeds will live on forever after you pass. Immortality? Level up.

Will this lemon-pie-making become a probably-yearly tradition? Yes. And I think my kids will remember the tart-sweet of those bites and think of me. Same with my weekly bread (minus the tart-sweet).

Will my writing live on after I’m gone? Yes. And maybe my kids will get a kick out of reading what their silly little super cool mom had to say about life and love and sentences.

So what this all loops back around to is . . .

IMMORTALITY.

Really, though, it is. Do things. Do things that you (and partners and kids and students and people) will remember. And as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow once said (but because he has achieved immortality through his words, he still says — present tense), “Let us, then, be up and doing / with a heart for any fate.” If you have time, read the entire poem here. It is life-changing. But it might take a minute.

I wonder what you’ll do.

Lemon Cream Pie and California Dreamin’

“Shake the hand that feeds you.” –Michael Pollan, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto

Lemon Cream Pie. Just saying those three words brings me back to my grandmother’s warm kitchen, watching her bustle around in her silky sea-green “cooking” robe. My grandmother was fancy — no simple apron for her. But the fancy was always in direct contrast to the frenetic bustling, especially for holiday dinners. She would scuttle here and scuttle there, taking the scalloped potatoes out of the bottom oven, basting the turkey in the top oven, snatching the heavy whipping cream out of the fridge. She always had the wild-eyed look in the kitchen, but as soon as I came in, she’d stop in the middle of whatever she was doing to wrap me in a squishy (read: voluptuous) hug and give me “some sugar” — aka, kisses on the cheek. And then back to the bustling.

It’s funny how we don’t truly appreciate things until they’re gone. This year, I’ll be having Thanksgiving dinner with only my immediate family: my husband and three boys (and, unlike growing up, I’m so very, very outnumbered). Not only do we live across the country from my California grandmother (and my aunts and uncles and cousin), but at the ripe age of 95, she’s certainly not bustling anymore.

So the lemon pie comes down to me, and it’s a responsibility I don’t take lightly. The first order of business is to find the recipe. The (potentially) devastating part to this is . . . I don’t know if I have it and . . .

My grandmother never used a recipe.

Years ago, when I was an undergrad, I decided that I needed to learn how to make “The Pie.” I asked my grandmother if she’d walk me through the recipe, and she happily obliged. All I remember from that afternoon at her house in Palo Alto is a flurry of trying to keep up with her as she tossed into a bowl a cup of this, a spoonful of that, and then . . . mix and pour and pie crust and oven and hot and cold and refrigerator and eat. Surely I must have written something down, but I’m not sure. And I’m not sure if I still have the (potentially) written down recipe. And if so, it’s probably chicken scratch and hardly readable.

(And now I will take a short hiatus from the writing of this post to rummage around my kitchen and see if I can find something — anything — that resembles my grandmother’s lemon cream pie recipe. Wish me luck.)

***

Update: I found a recipe! It’s in my mom’s handwriting (but on a recipe card that says “from the kitchen of Inez,” my grandmother’s name), and it’s severely lacking in details, but it’s something! Here it is:

Beat 3 eggs til foamy
Alternately: add 1/3 cup lemon juice and 2/3 cup sugar
Beat together well
Cook in double boiler. Stir constantly til thick. Take off heat. Crumble/beat in 3oz. cream cheese. Beat to melt.
Top with whipped topping.

That’s it. I flipped the card over, only to find a blank side. Nothing about a pie crust. Nothing about how to make the whipped topping and how much. Nothing about chilling it and for how long. My grandmother has dementia and is hard of hearing, so calling her on the phone to clarify anything is out of the question. So I’ll be using what I have as a base recipe and crossing my fingers for the rest of it.

How beautiful will it be, though, for me to take the rough recipe and smooth it out with my additions. I am actually looking forward to it. I’ll definitely add some lemon zest. I have a lovely new pie crust recipe from a coworker (thank you, Caroline) to try, and I am familiar with making homemade whipped cream. As for how long to chill the pie . . . that’s probably going to depend on how patient I am.

***

Michael Pollan, in his book In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, acknowledges the importance of our relationships with food and with the makers of our food. We should know what our food is. We should know who makes our food. We should appreciate our food. Simple, good advice — and there’s so much more in the book. If you’re a human, you should definitely read it.

When he says to shake the hand that feeds us — if nothing else — it’s a good reminder for us to be aware. As Thanksgiving approaches, more than likely our families are beginning to plan for the day. And the plan probably revolves around food. Just this morning my California cousin Krysta sent me pictures of mini plum and apple pies that she’s testing out for Thanksgiving. I responded to her text with a snarky “FINE! YES I’LL TAKE ONE OR THREE!” I’m deliciously happy that she’s enjoying baking pies. I’m just not thrilled that I won’t be partaking in the eating of them. So, yes, this week in particular, many humans are beginning to think about and plan for . . . food. Be aware of that. If you are one of the humans thinking and planning, you already are. But if you are a human that simply shows up to grandma’s house, sits at the table, and chows down, take a minute to be aware (read: thankful) of all (read: love) that goes into the preparation of the food.

I’m asking my students to write “Favorite Thanksgiving Food” articles this week. It’s been a fun conversation so far about their experiences and memories and how they fuse together into a pan or cookie sheet or skillet or bowl. Some of my students have taken the assignment to heart and have spoken with family members who make the dish. Some of the students have already obtained the recipe. (Did they accuse me of assigning this just so I could get a glut of recipes right before Thanksgiving? Yes. Yes, they did. And I didn’t completely deny it.)

Food in so many ways links us to family. When I think of lemon pies, I think of my grandmother. And as I suck on this Ricola cough drop right now, I think of Krysta. And that’s not even something homemade. There’s plenty of research that tells us that our sensory experiences (especially smell) link to past memories. But aside from the science, there’s something special about food. When I sent out an all-call email to my coworkers to ask them for food articles they had, I was hit with a barrage of online articles and glossy magazines. One article I read from The New York Times, after copy-pasting it onto a Google doc so my students could view it, was 44 pages long. About food. But clearly about so much more than that. It was about tradition and family and ingredients and preparation and elegance and recipes and beauty. And it had beautiful pictures. Allison Roman from The New York Times clearly poured her heart into this article about . . . food.

My post began with lemon cream pie but quickly became about my grandmother. It then took a broader turn to being aware of and appreciating the humans making our food (and maybe even shaking their hands). As I close out, I’m thinking about my students as they pour their hearts out (hopefully!) writing their articles. Perhaps they’ll take an extra minute of their day to make a connection to a parent or grandparent or aunt or uncle through . . . food.

So as we continue through this season of thanks, let’s be more aware. Let’s appreciate more. Let’s give more thanks. Let’s cook together. Let’s sit together. And eat.

Simple Melodies, a Celebrity Sighting, and Some Wisdom from Chopin

“Simplicity is the final achievement. After one has played a vast quantity of notes and more notes, it is simplicity that emerges as the crowning reward of art.” –Frederic Chopin–

Simplicity as the final achievement. Think about that. Whatever it is we’re doing with our (probably hectic, probably busy, probably complicated) lives, it’s all leading up to our final achievement. For composer Frederic Chopin (my favorite, by the way), he believes that the crowning reward of art is simplicity.

Seems counterintuitive for a crowning reward to be . . . simple. But I think he’s on to something here. Something big.

Every Tuesday night for the last several weeks, my husband and I have met with some friends in a “supper club,” studying Handel’s Messiah. During the week, we listen to a couple of movements and when we meet, we eat together and then gather around the piano, play, and discuss. Every fourth Tuesday, we eat out. The first time eating out, we met at a cute little place in Riverside called The Bread and Board. As we were chatting at the table, enjoying delicious victuals, one of the ladies in our group sharply elbows her husband to tell him that she’s spotted the associate conductor of the Jacksonville Symphony sitting two tables over — the very conductor we were to see in a few weeks when we went together to see Messiah, Gonzalo Farias.

Long story short, after she goes over to chat with him (and — oops — interrupts his studying a score of music), he comes over and sits with us. Clearly passionate about music, he becomes energized answering our myriad questions.

And then we ask him to come to our supper club.

And then the next Tuesday, he does.

And then after we gather around the piano, playing and discussing our “homework,” we ask him to play.

And he does. And it’s awe-inspiring. And it’s Chopin, my favorite.

If it weren’t for all of our kids clomping around in other parts of the house and slapping sticky hands against the window pane separating the piano room from the backyard (where we tried to sequester them), I would have become emotional. It was that moving.

I credit this entire experience to my friend who had the guts to approach him at all, and then to her husband who asked him to sit down with us, and then to both of them when they asked him to come to their house for our next meeting. Nothing complicated here — just some spirit, good manners, and kindness.

And it led to an unforgettable experience.

I think Chopin (and my new friend Gonzalo) would be the first to say that the crowning reward at the end of the piece doesn’t come unless sometimes tricky, sometimes complicated notes have been played. Those notes give the ending the respect it deserves. But it’s interesting to note that when we look at a piece of music, it’s not always lots of tricky, complicated notes.

When I was forced to play in piano competitions growing up, I would occasionally be chosen to play in the honor recital. I remember the piece that the judges particularly liked was one of the simplest pieces I had ever played for the competition: Howard Hanson’s Enchantment. I still have the sheet music. And it still has the (now faded) orange sticky note with the words “Honor Recital Selection” on it. It wasn’t the most difficult, technically speaking. (But good luck playing it if you only know how to play technically.) It did require a great amount of emotion to be played well. Somehow as an angst-ridden pre-teen, I had that.

The more I live (and play piano and sing and dance around my living room and sometimes classroom), the more I comprehend the beautiful analogy between music and life. A good musician is fully invested — in the short staccato notes, in the smooth whole notes, in the fortissimo, in the pianissimo, in the crescendos, and in the diminuendos. Whether the piece has much variance or little, the musician is fully invested. Hanson’s Enchantment begins at P (soft) and ends at PP (very soft). So when I play it, it’s not about dramatic volume changes. It’s about being fully — softly — present emotionally. And sometimes

softly

is the most emotional way to play.

So you can imagine my chagrin when I searched Hanson’s piece, and the video I (unfortunately and regretfully) clicked on was of a little girl hot-dog-fingering the piano keys. (Hot Dog Fingers is a real thing. Check it out.) I listened to maybe ten seconds before closing the entire tab. I didn’t want to hear any other videos of the piece (being potentially hot-dog-clubbed to death). I’ll just write my post and go play it myself.

***

“After one has played a vast quantity of notes and more notes, it is simplicity that emerges as the crowning reward of art.”

I think sometimes life can feel like only “notes and more notes.” We glorify busyness and teach it to our children at home and in school. We tell each other that we’re only worth something if our resume is packed, our agenda is full, our GPA is high. A packed resume and a full agenda and a high GPA aren’t bad things. But if they are the only things we’re living for, we’re going to come up for a breath, only to fill our mouths with cotton balls. Blech.

Simplicity has to be a part of our life. It’s funny how when we realize this, we’re quick to shell out money for an app or a program or yoga classes or meditation sessions. And these can be great. But the simplest answer? It’s free.

Do less stuff.

Then when you occasionally have a packed schedule, you know it’s just that — an occasionally packed schedule. Normal life can be simpler. And with simplicity comes clarity.

So instead of making plans every weekend, make plans only on some weekends.

Instead of having 17 “close friends,” have five.

Instead of shoving and pushing and punching your students through an entire English textbook in a year, pick and choose only a few large concepts and do some deep dives. And have the students give input on what they’re interested in. I’m sure the other subjects can do this as well — even math (I’m thinking homework load, for one thing).

Instead of more knickknacks in the house, get a houseplant, preferably one that’s been propagated from a friend. (Thanks to my neighbor and friend, I have the most amazingly healthy swiss cheese plant. And from another friend, a fiddle leaf fig. And rubber plant.) And then you can propagate. Make more for yourself. Give away as presents (to your five close friends). (I feel like a plant post is going to be in order for the near future . . . )

And when your life does get busy and complicated and tricky, which it most certainly will, remember to focus on the beautiful simplicity of the people in your life you love. Look around at the creation God has made for us to enjoy. Breathe it in. It’s life-giving.

Know that the busyness and the complications and the trickiness will come to an end. And that the simplicity that follows will be a “crowning reward.” And then busyness and complications and trickiness will come again. And that’s OK. Just as mountains need valleys to be mountains, so, too, do we need complexity to have the simplicity.

It’s always about the balance, isn’t it. Mountains and valleys, complexity and simplicity, lots of notes, few notes. And often we need one to appreciate the other. So I don’t want my message to be simply to simplify (though I’d argue most people could do some good with that). My message echoes Chopin’s:

Play a vast quantity of notes and more notes.

But pause sometimes.

Allow silence.

And then maybe play five

or three or

two notes.

Play a simple melody*. Feel it in your bones. Let it move you.

And then? Maybe take a break, turn on some music, and dance around the living room (with kids jumping off the couches and a baby on your hip, optional).

*Here are some of my (simple) favorites:

Is there a piece of music or a song that moves you? Please share. I’m always hungry for more music in my life.