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A return to an old read, The School of Essential Ingredients (2009) by the novelist Erica Bauermeister, in my perception, parallels the transformational nature of the art of cooking with the gift of grace: both require the freshest of ingredients, attention, willingness, action, waiting, savoring. In both, surprise delights, surprise encourages still more experimentation.

Interesting that the novelist sets The School of Essential Ingredients between autumns’ chill and the return of cherry blossoms blooming across the front of Lillian’s restaurant. From the dusk, emerge eight participants who have signed on for her cooking classes. Into her light-filled, savory kitchen, they shuffle, their expressions pinched by varied faces of grief, becoming even more etched after learning of her teaching method: relying upon intuition rather than cookbooks with directions.

As weeks pass, the participants anticipate sitting around her oval worktable, the place where it happens: The emerging sense of connectedness in their concoctions and more importantly, with each other. Laughter, surprise, and exclamations ring out.

Another school of essential ingredients comes to mind at Eastern Point Retreat House in Gloucester, Massachusetts, where for many years I had signed on for directed retreats. Although we were forty-five in number, many of whom returned at the same time each September, again we needed psychic cleansing and longed for the Face of God, our Chef and Teacher, so to speak, to feed us—It was everywhere. Instantly, silence deepened our connectedness, steeped us in compassion, and fired our willingness to follow where we were led.

Critical to the ensuing mishmash of the days and nights were also attention, willingness, waiting, savoring, and action that infused intimate heart-talk with God. The result was a gentle soul-throttling—the tongue of the pounding surf revealing secrets within the now and daring still more ascents. 

However, my annual squeaky-clean washing was short-lived until the following September, but the feedings continue…for all us.

The image of a box of toys impressed me while listening to Claude Debussy’s ballet score (1913) of the same name. Conceived of seven parts, its playfulness conjured up toy soldiers, baby dolls, stuffed animals, tops, hoops, balls, coloring books and crayons, and so much more. Even recalled the pine-walled-playroom our dad had built in the basement, our special place apart from the everydayness with its predictable routine.

However, a deeper look at the box of toys suggests the imagination as a container of sorts, filled with riches that nourish spirit in bleak times, such as our own. Besides memory’s traces of the beautiful, of intimate prayer moments, other forms of deep play, however construed, have ballooned my sails, empowering the exploration of multiple unknowns around me.  

One of these were walks, outdoors in all seasons: they used to imprint colors upon my psyche—even the subtle browns of November, the gray-browns of December: all strikingly beautiful in their dying.

And recourse to YouTube still animates ancient sacred sites that I visited in Malta, Egypt, Greece, Italy, France, England, and Ireland—all Jungian sponsored tours. Such experiences afforded me windows into psyches steeped in other forms of worship, its remnants housed in storm-eroded temples and nearby museums that suggested vibrant living at one time.

I still wonder about these ancient people and their smiles, as evidenced in Bes, the carved Egyptian god of laughter and fertility, seen at the Temple of Isis at Agilkia.

But getting back to the box of toys and its contents, whatever play inspirits your psyche, go for it. Let it tingle your imagination and soften your smile.

“What is real?”—A critical question posed to those seeking authenticity.

This is worked out in The Velveteen Rabbit (1922) by the American-British author Margery Williams. What appears to be the story of a little boy’s relationship with his stuffed rabbit becomes something else. Her toy animals speak.

“What is real?” asks the Velveteen Rabbit, a stocking stuffer ignored by the little boy that Christmas morning in lieu of the more modern wind-up toys in the nursery.

The Skin Horse, the favorite of the boy’s uncle, responds, “When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”

After the holidays, the grandmother slips the Velveteen Rabbit into the arms of the little boy, asleep in his bed. The next morning, they become inseparable.

Months of cuddling the stuffed rabbit evidence the boy’s growing affection for his pet: bent and missing whiskers, glass eye hanging by a thread, worn patches of velveteen on the haunches, discolored torn ear. Then comes the change.

It comes with the boy’s scarlet fever, and with the single tear from the Velveteen Rabbit’s good eye coursing down its cheek: an arousal of love for his little friend. It also brings on the Nursery Magic Fairy who honors his fresh spirit, kisses him on the nose, then leads him to other rabbits in the forest where he becomes one among them.

This story of transformation appealed to me. Like the Velveteen Rabbit, my body continues wearing down, feelings surface through daily bogs, and grief’s tears water my psyche: all expressions of deepening love for Creator God who has brought me this far in life. I, too, must become real and submit to the stripping/loving in our relationship. To this ongoing process, I bring heartfelt trust.

 

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