Sunday, March 17, 2013

Our Creative Lives as Colcannon

Two years ago, I wrote the following essay, which has become one of my favorite responses to St. Patrick's Day.  For a more spiritual/historical approach to this day, go to this piece at my theology blog.

Thinking about St. Patrick's Day often takes me back to my early days as a budding vegetarian back in high school. I got one of those vegetarian magazines and decided to fix my family a special St. Patrick's Day meal. I would make Colcannon. Yes, Colcannon! It would be spectacular! They would never forget how fabulous it tasted!

I've now been cooking long enough that I would have skipped right over that recipe, a dish made primarily of mashed potatoes and cabbage. Blhhhhhh.

But no, I made Irish soda bread and Colcannon and served the family dinner with a flourish. Oh, my poor, long-suffering, generous family. What meals they endured as I experimented with vegetarian cooking. Looking back, I realize I was lucky to have such a family, who didn't complain too much about my cooking. My working mom was grateful to have anyone else cook, and she'd buy the ingredients. My dad, a long-distance runner both then and now, was interested in health. My sister, left to her own devices, would have had tacos every night.

We ate all the Irish soda bread that night, and each one of us finished our portion of Colcannon. It wasn't that bad--it just didn't taste like what I was expecting.

I see that experience as a metaphor for so much of life. Let's think about Colcannon as a metaphor for the creative life, which might be an important exercise in these days when so many contest and grant results are being announced, which means many of us are wrestling with disappointment when we're not chosen.

Many of us navigated towards a creative life with certain expectations. We would write that great novel which would be turned into a film which would mean we could leave our crappy jobs. We would write a beautiful collection of poems which would be win a prestigious prize which would net us a glorious teaching job where we taught one section a semester to adoring poet-students and had time to linger in the library and use the pool and eat our lunches in the faculty dining room. I could continue to spin fantasies, but you have the idea.

In the meantime, we've had to learn to live with what we actually have on our plates for dinner. Maybe we have a teaching job where we teach not poetry, but Composition. Maybe we don't have a Lake District circle of friends, but only one or two people who write. Maybe we have some kind of office job that consists primarily of sending, reading, responding to, and deleting e-mails, and we thought we were going to be doing important work. Maybe we've found ourselves marooned in a city or town that isn't as glamorous as we had planned.

And yet, our current Colcannon lives are perfectly satisfying, perfectly nourishing, if we could only bring ourselves to feel happy about them. The boring office job at least does not leave us too exhausted to write. The teaching job, while having its own difficulties (all that grading!), at least is work that will always be there--yesterday, as I drove to work, I heard an NPR story on the long-term unemployed, people who can't find ANY job that will bring in cash. I felt anxious, but immediately calmed down when I reminded myself that I can always find as much adjunct work as I can stand, if something should happen to my full-time job. We may have a smaller publication than we'd hoped for, but those publications are beautiful too, and they may open doors to larger publications and/or other opportunities.

In fact, I've talked to people who have achieved their goals, only to find that it wasn't as satisfying as they'd hoped. The book is published during the same week that something catastrophic happens in the world, so there's not much attention to it. The dream teaching job is in a department that is torn apart by strife. The glamorous city has a downside: crime or bad weather or high cost of living or homesickness for the place left behind.

Along with my quest to live a life that's in balance, a life that's in sync with my values, I'm also working hard to master being happy with what I have. I love that Zen saying, which I'm probably paraphrasing badly here: "Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water." In other words, even if we get the dream publication, the dream job, the dream city, the dream partner, we will not be excused from the basic demands of life: the daily upkeep (body, housing, clothes, cooking), the bills, the relationship building and repairing.

I've often longed to live someplace else or to have a different job or to be at a different place in life, and then, when I'm there (the someplace else, the different job, the different life era), I look back longingly at previous times/places/jobs--all of which I didn't even like at the time.

Now I am trying to learn to shelter in place (yes, I know that we usually use that term in disaster preparedness, but it fits here too). I tell myself that I should enjoy this phase because I'll miss it later.

So, wherever you are, enjoy the Colcannon that's on your plate, even if you wish you had shepherd's pie or lamb chops. Some day, you'll likely have the lamb chops that you see others enjoying--but for now, treasure the taste of cabbage and potatoes. The lamb chops will taste that much better later for having had to wait.

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