Friday, October 5, 2007

The thwarted urbanite

Today I received, in the mail, our Disability Parking Placard. I did a little happy dance. The District government here is so unpredictable. The card was only requested a week or so ago. It took them a full year to send us a ridiculous baby card for Margaret including a friendly reminder to begin immunizing by two months. Please.

Why, you might ask, does a committed urban-dweller such as myself do a happy dance when her parking permit arrives in the mail? Let me explain. I need to convince myself, too.

We've got this wheelchair for Joseph. It's really, really wonderful. He can zip around in it really well. He's at eye-level with other kids his age. He behaves in a more age-appropriate way (including by misbehaving). This chair is a huge blessing to our family and we want Joseph to use it as much as possible. Sometimes we still confine him a bit: he really can't handle all the stimulation of Target, for example. The store is just too big so he rides in the shopping cart and Margaret goes on my back. Trader Joe's is no problem. I can let Joseph be pretty independent and he can keep up just fine. We always want the chair at our destination.

The trouble is that the chair is rotten for traveling. We live in an old neighborhood with lots of brick sidewalks, lots of bumps, lots of hills, and unpredictable curb edges. The Metro is five long blocks away for a kid in a wheelchair. We have a regular routine of going to the library on Wednesday mornings. The past several times we've gone I've put Margaret on my back (which she just barely tolerates), thrown a heavy bag full of books over one shoulder and tried to push Joseph with the too-low stroller handles over all the bumps and around all the curbs. Once on the train I have a split second to drop the books and set Joseph's brakes so he doesn't go flying through the train car. If someone actually offers a seat, that helps. If Margaret doesn't communicate right then (via biting) that she's sick of the backpack, that's also good.

We arrive in Chinatown exhausted and annoyed with each other. I've usually dealt with this by self-medicating at Starbucks. This makes the trip cost about six dollars (if I get a scone to split with Joseph, too).

This week it looked like rain and I thought, could I, possibly, drive to Chinatown? We're already in the car on Wednesday mornings, anyway, because we drive to campus for Mass and drop off Eric at the library. I was skeptical but thought, worst case I'd just get frazzled by the downtown traffic and drive back home.

It was wonderful. It took only a few minutes to get to Chinatown. There was parking everywhere. Once parked, we had lots of energy left so I very patiently helped Joseph into his wheelchair and let him wheel on the nice, even, wide downtown sidewalks at his own pace. Margaret was still on my back, but I could probably put her in the stroller next time. Joseph needs so little help. The parking meters are a bit expensive BUT if you have a handicapped plate you get four hours for free. And, my nerves aren't totally shot, so I don't absolutely have to go to Starbucks. I could even bring my own mug from home. I've now reduced our $6.00 outing to about $.40 in gas.

I felt really conflicted about all of this later in the day. I don't want to drive everywhere. I love city living mostly because I like to walk. I would happily vote for local policies that made our city less car-friendly. I wondered for awhile if I was just being lazy. What would I do if Joseph weren't in a wheelchair? Would I still want to drive. I don't think so. The Metro here is really great and a lot of fun. I'd put both kids and all the library books in our fantastic double stroller and take the Metro to the library. I'd do that now except that then Joseph is totally stuck in the stroller once we get there. It's not very dignifying for a three-year-old to crawl around on his tummy in a public place.

Sadly, my ideals do not always hold up to practical experience. I could persevere with the Margaret-biting-in-the-backpack model, but that type of outing frustrates everyone and leaves me feeling worn out and sore at the end of the day and thinking, "HOW will I ever be able to handle another child?" I don't want to be thinking things like that. I still load the kids into the double stroller for long walks through our neighborhood as much as I can. It's good exercise for me and fun for them just to observe from the stroller. It is hard, though, not to be able to more fully live the life that I'm always preaching to everyone else!

Thursday, October 4, 2007

My Buddhist Cookbooks

My favorite cookbook (you can tell because it is no longer in one piece) is The Tassajara Bread Book by Edward Espe Brown. Ed Brown is a Buddhist, a Zen priest. I don't really know anything about Buddhism. I do think his California Buddhism might look quite different from Eastern Buddhism but, you know, it's definitely not Catholic. Another favorite cookbook is Tomato Blessings and Radish Teachings by the same author. This one is a collection of recipes and essays interspersed. The recipes are good but I like the book for the essays. A short disclaimer before I continue: everything I know about Buddhism and Zen mediation comes from these two books. If any real Buddhists are reading this, I would be most interested in hearing your thoughts.

The first essay in Tomato Blessings is "When You Wash the Rice, Wash the Rice." Be present to the rice. Notice how your hands are moving. Notice how the water is running. Notice the nourishment you will give to your family. Do this simple thing very well. Another essay, "The Sincerity of Battered Teapots," encourages respect for things: "Carry one thing with two hands rather than two things with one hand." But reflects on the authenticity and vulnerability of the teapots not treated this way. And, at the end, one of my favorites, "Eating Just One Potato Chip." Slowing done and eating one potato chip with awareness you discover the truth: potato chips are gross.

Ed Brown's bread book is similar. He encourages making bread with your whole body, "When I cook, another body comes alive . . . A body alive to flavors and fragrance, a body ready to touch and be touched, a body which eats with eyes as well as mouth . . . Hands awaken, boundless with their own knowledge, picking up, handling, putting down." I'm really cherry-picking, here. It's difficult to briefly summarize two books that have had such a profound influence on my life in the kitchen and beyond. These books have taught me to cook. Brown's style is very casual. The instructions are not always very precise because he doesn't want you fretting over how much onion to put in the soup. Put in enough onion and be done with it. I've gotten over a lot of perfectionist hangups reading these books. I've come to think about other chored differently, as well. It's not always easy but sometimes I do remember to think, "When you fold the diapers, fold the diapers."

Does all of this sound a bit loopy? Are you concerned that I'm losing touch with my Catholic faith? I'm not too worried. The comforting thing about believing in absolute truth is that you can wander afield a bit without fear. Because you know Truth you can look for truths in all sorts of places. To be honest, it's also handy to be married to a theologian. I can check my thinking with Eric anytime I want. (And, in case you were wondering, the bread book was a Christmas present from him the year we were engaged and the other book was his before we were married.)

These two cookbooks give great importance to some of the most simple and fundamental aspects of life. Baking bread, sharing a meal. Fasting and feasting. These cookbooks have challenged me to slow down and work with care and reflection. If these were books about prayer they would be teaching "recollection." As I've said before, these daily, simple tasks are my vocation. God wants me to do them well. St. Therese of Lisieux, whose feast day we just celebrated, was a great champion of holiness in small things. To do the small things well is to be on the path to holiness. I suppose I could just read Story of a Soul and not worry about my Buddhist cookbooks, but I think the Lord knows that I need to be taught the same basic concepts over and over again in lots of different ways. I've read Story of a Soul three times, which is about how many times I've read the essays in Tomato Blessings.

Buddhist reflections are not sufficient. The life of faith requires more. But I do think I can read these essays and feel no qualms about deriving encouragement from them. My life is more Catholic than Buddhist and I read Edward Espe Brown through the lens of Truth.