Monday, September 6, 2010

An Appetite for the Taste of Something Real

"The things most worth wanting are not available everywhere all the time."
 ---Alice Waters

I have lived under the perception that "hunger," "desire," "longing" were negatives to be eradicated; deficiencies to be overcome.  The object, I assumed, was to reach some state of perpetual satisfaction -- without need, without want, without limitation. 

Apparently, I have not been alone.  This valiant quest has given us strawberries and asparagus in January and apples in June.  But what it has also given us is the illusion of satisfaction.  Tomatoes grown in water in January indeed mature and ripen; they just acquire no taste in the process.  Sure, strawberries can be picked green one place in the world and shipped to another -- ripening, in a way, along the journey with some chemical manipulation -- but they won't taste like strawberries.

Along that same way, we forget what real things taste like.  We have what we wanted, but only in a sense.  The thing we really wanted still eludes us; a mutually agreed upon impostor in its place.  And we settle.  We accept the illusion -- in a way like choosing to live in a Hollywood movie set.  It's all facade, but at least it looks handsome and real.

All of which strikes me as being not just a culinary problem, but finally a spiritual one; something somehow near the category of sin.  Perhaps it is something related to the dynamic of idolatry in which a crude but accessible reasonable facsimile takes the place of the more elusive and uncontrollable real thing.  Perhaps it is the arrogance of wanting the world on our terms -- chafing against the constraints of creaturely status and its concomitant aspiration to "be in charge."  Wasn't that, after all, the sin of Adam and Eve, and the laborers at Babel?

There is a fine and precarious line between employing our God-given ingenuity and organizing a coup against heaven -- a narrow thread that separates the imitational aspiration to be "like God" and the imperialistic quest be "be God."  And quite possibly it is a line we only recognize in retrospect. 

As we now are coming to recognize in our food.  That line is now behind us, not ahead; one we no longer anticipate, but have already crossed.

Perhaps our hungers -- and our nobler desires -- are not negatives after all; and were not only designed to nudge us toward nourishment and satisfaction, but were created into us to teach us patience -- and to help remind us about, and keep track of, what is real and genuinely tasty...

...and worth wanting in the first place.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

A Foreign Land Delightfully Worth Visiting

Chatting Wednesday evening at the Farmer's Market with the leader of the mosque that used to be located down the street from the church, I asked about the old building, how their Middle Eastern grocery store across the street is doing, and how they are liking their new location -- a converted Masonic Lodge a mile or so away.  After playfully chastising me for not coming to see it, and after I promised to do so, he invited Lori and me to be their guest for dinner some night this weekend when they broke fast.  Muslims are beginning the final week of the month of Ramadan during which they fast from sun up to sun down, bridged by designated hours of prayer throughout the day and evening.  After gathering at the mosque for a prayer service, they adjourn to the dining room downstairs for a meal that one of the members has prepared.  By this time of the month, the time for fast breaking had moved up from close to 9:30 p.m. to just before 8:00 p.m.  When I asked if there was a night he would suggest, or if there might be one we shouldn't attend, he checked with his wife who initially suggested we come on Saturday.  "Saturday, Sunday or Monday," she said; "I know who is cooking those nights." 

So, last night we opened the mosque door at 7:50 p.m. with the apprehension of ignorance and walked inside.  Entering a vestibule of sorts, we were quickly sized up by some helpful members, after which Lori was quickly ushered downstairs with the other women (not to be seen again until we left) and I, after taking off my shoes as instructed, was led upstairs to the prayer room.  In my tradition, the room would have been the sanctuary, except without pews or chairs.  Worshipers stood in rows facing a certain direction -- stood, that is, until they bowed in keeping with the prayers being recited aloud by the leader; bowed, then stood upright, then kneeled, then prostrated, then kneeled, then stood, then bowed...repeat...etc.  You get the idea.  I wasn't the only visitor present, so we neophytes limped along together.  I couldn't understand a word of what was being said, but I rather enjoyed the repetitive movement that had something in common with yoga; and if I couldn't understand their prayers, it was a meaningful opportunity to devote myself to my own. 

The experience didn't last long.  Perhaps 15 minutes after we had begun, we were led downstairs to what we would call the fellowship hall where tables were set up on at least the entered side of a movable wall that divided the room.  Occasional sounds from the other side of the divider betrayed where the women of the community were eating.  Plates were delivered; food was identified and described by Mike (in fact his name was considerably longer, but when he saw the helpless expression on my face, he suggested I call him "Mike") who had done all the cooking for the night.  A widower perhaps in his early 60's, he was pleased he had managed to pull it off.  "They told me to cook for 50," he recalled.  Mike, who moved to the U.S. before the Revolution and the hostage crisis, then answered other questions we generated, along with Khalid, an Anglo man about my age, and Mohammed, the friend and leader whose invitation had brought us here.  After dinner, Khalid showed us the washing area where the men purify themselves before prayers, and demonstrated the ritual -- the hands, the fingers, the mouth, the nose, the ears, the hair in a particular sequence and regimen -- and eventually led the other visitors and I back up to the vestibule, assuming that we weren't planning to join him back upstairs for the next round of prayers. 

Meanwhile I was beginning to worry about Lori.  Stripped apart as we walked in the door, I hadn't seen or heard from her in the past hour and a half.  As I waited, the wives of the other visitors eventually appeared, but still no Lori.  Khalid was needing to proceed on with his prayers, but he hustled back downstairs to see what he could learn.  On his way back through he assured me that she was not only there but was on her way up.  I'll admit that I was feeling protective...and responsible; I had no idea what had been going on with her through the evening, and I was ready with an apology.  And then I saw her joyfully radiant face ascending the stairs in the company of two shrouded women to whom she promptly introduced me.  They, she explained, had quickly taken her under their wing and guided and explained and answered questions.  Fatima, a refugee from Somalia, and Mona, newly relocated to Des Moines for her husband's work, were both acquainted with the dynamics of dislocation -- with being the newcomer in an unfamiliar place -- and intuited Lori's need of a guide.  The happy and affectionate chatter among them signaled that it had been a good evening. 

Taking our leave, we reflected on the experience.  Incredibly diverse, we had worshiped and dined with Africans, Iranians, Arabs, Pakistanis, Mexicans and Anglos.  Looking around, one of my fellow visitors observed that he had to remind himself that he was in Des Moines.  Seeing newcomers, members of the community had assumed our unfamiliarity and without instruction or designation took it upon themselves to guide us through.  I thought how different all that was from our usual experience at church.  There, a largely monochromatic body gathers together, and when visitors appear, our designated greeters say hello but otherwise assume that the guests know the ropes and leave them to their own resourcefulness. 

So it was that we drove home nourished in more ways than one.  More than tolerated, we had been welcomed and befriended and cared for -- served, in any number of ways.  And while it still felt like a foreign land, it was one worth visiting as a tourist; and looking forward, perhaps, to visiting again. 

Friday, September 3, 2010

A Few Blocks of Delight

I suggested to the service department shuttle driver that he let me off at the stop sign several blocks away.  Ostensibly it was to give him an easier time accessing the freeway he needed to drop off his other passenger, but the truth was that it is too pretty of a day not to spend at least a few minutes of it on the sidewalk.  The door slid closed, the van glided away, and the neighborhood opened around me.  Cool for these early days of September -- upper 50's according to the morning news -- the sun was nonetheless bright in the unblemished sky.  A slight breeze animated a few leaves, but the limbs were still, and the birds were having a party of the morning.

Wood smoke was already wisping from Woody's chimney, the foretaste of today's barbecue filling the air.  I'll not be getting there for lunch today, but the smell tempts me to rearrange my plans.  

A squirrel explores the perimeter of a trash bin next to a house, seeking admission.  Finding none, and annoyed by my interruption, he scurries off between the fence pickets toward the trees beyond.  I meant him no malice, and was rather enjoying his diligence, so his exit was a minor disappointment.

A new member of the church -- an African immigrant/refugee who had spent years in a refugee camp before being separated from her husband and children and relocated to the U.S. -- was carrying her garbage to the curb.  Her English is spotty, but smiles and waves are apparently universal vocabulary, and we even manage a reciprocal "good morning" before moving our separate ways.  It feels good to make connection beyond the orderly confines of the pews, and to register mutual recognition.

Too soon, I arrive at the parking lot doors and withdraw the keys from my pocket.  I could, I think to myself, just keep walking -- another block...or two...or three; it is, after all, still early.  Instead, after one more deep breath and a wistful glance back over the neighborhood, I turn the lock and switch on the lights.  The sermon inside my computer still searching for a conclusion won't find one on its own.  And Sunday, as my Dad likes to say, "comes around with ruthless regularity."

Still, it was a nice walk, and a perfect beginning to the day.  And I'm still reconsidering that barbecue.  Maybe I'll call the service department and tell them not to hurry with car.