Good evening, friends and neighbors.
It had been a rough week. Between a long work week, tax season, car problems and more, Emily and I have been failing miserably at our resolution to just have boring lives for a few months.
Last Sunday, Emily decided that we both needed a day to relax and just mosey around- me especially. After thinking about what kind of things would help me relax, we decided the first order of business was a hot bowl of ramen for lunch, and then maybe an afternoon at Lan Su Garden.
As we sat in the restaurant, sipping genmaicha and slurping our noodles (I'd chosen the tonkatsu- a pork-broth based bowl), I found myself staring deep into my teacup and wondering:
"Why are the things that I count on to bring me calm and serenity based in East Asian culture and philosophy?"
I suppose part of the reason I asked myself that rather than, you know, just enjoying those things, is the fact that I discovered much of my love for those cultures while I was dissatisfied with my own.
I was born and raised Conservative Jewish (a slightly-more-strict-than-middle-of-the-road sect of American Judaism,) but for about four years of my life I was a practicing Buddhist. Between an unpleasant ecclesiastical discussion with a rabbi and my general dispassion with the faith, Buddhism seemed to embrace and answer all the questions I had about my place and role in the Universe. Where Judaism seemed to say "Shut up, sit down, and pray," Buddhism seemed to say, "Sit down, be still, and think-" things I was quite good at at the time.
It took another crisis of faith, and a warm welcome from the Hasidim (a more orthodox sect of Judaism) and their Chabad outreach program to make me more comfortable with my identity as a Jew, and the wealth of culture that was my birthright beyond standing and reciting Hebrew litanies. Part of what the Chabad rabbi said that got me thinking was "Anything that can give you peace in some other faith, you can find that same peace in your own."
Bringing it back then, the complete question I asked myself over tea and ramen was "Why do I find calm and serenity in things based on East Asian philosophy, and are there similar things in the Jewish philosophy I was born to?"
Surely the culture I was born to is worth introspection and curiosity, right?
In Jewish philosophy- as in much of Judeo-Christian theology- serenity and bliss are found uniquely in living in concordance with God's will, namely-
- Observing the 613 mitzvot (commandments- that's right, there's more than 10.)
- Praising and interacting with God
- Deed of tzedakah (literally "righteousness," though often translated as "charity.")
- Art forms meant to be in praise of God and His creation.
At its root, the ultimate bliss one can experience in life is living in such a way that you experience devekus, or feeling the constant presence of the Almighty.
Compared to the Eastern philosophies I had learned about (primarily Taoism and Zen Buddhism,) bliss and serenity come from:
- recognizing the significance of your insignificance.
- letting go of egotism and thus connecting yourself fully to the cosmos.
- seeking the deeper beauty in everything around you, particularly its ephemerality.
- contemplation of oneself and one's connection to all things through various art forms.
I am not, and never have been, an especially religious or devout man. I have, however, for the entirety of my adult life been aware that I am a very small part of a very, very, VERY big universe.
Often, I suppose, I find myself marveling at the scope of the painting I'm in rather than the existence of the painter. This isn't to say that I DON'T get anything out of my own culture. It's a base of experience for me- a point of reference. A grounding, or background against which I can cast everything else. The home base from which I can journey, and to which I can return.
What I call "serenity" may very well be just cultural escapism- living in the Torah, and vacationing to the Tao Te Ching and Dhammapada for rejuvenation.
Here's to "getting away" into your own mind.
Lan Su was hideously crowded that day (rather ruining the experience in my opinion,) and so Emily and I just settled for the ramen and instead window-shopped in one of our favorite neighborhoods.
Good food, sun, and the pavement beneath our feet did just fine.
Maybe less a Chinese painting, and more of an Edward Hopper kind of serenity.
Good evening, friends and neighbors.
It's 5:15 in the morning. My alarm just went off, but I was up at 4... and at 2.
Since coming home from the wedding, Emily and I decided that for the first few months of 2017, all we wanted in the world was to be boring. No sudden moves. No job changes and hunts. No weddings, no big events, no nothing. For just a few months, all we wanted to do was wake up, go to work, come home, maybe eat out every now and again, and catch our breath after the last year and a half.
Things keep changing though, and the world comes knocking.
Since I was a kid, I loved folk stories and legends. One of my favorites was a story about the Magic Ring of Solomon. In short, the famous Biblical king seeks to humble an overly-proud servant of his by giving him an impossible quest: finding a magic ring that will make a happy man sad and a sad man happy. The legendarily wise king is astonished when the servant returns, claiming to have succeeded. The ring is a plain silver band, with the Hebrew for "This too shall pass" engraved on it. Immediately, the king realizes all his riches and success will one day be ashes, but that a man NOT fortunate enough to be king would take the message as a promise of good things to come.
According to the legend, Solomon rewards his servant handsomely, takes the "magic" ring, and it gives him balance and wisdom the rest of his life.
We do not all have magic rings.
We do not all realize how things can-and must- change.
We do not all know that nothing lasts forever.
I promised myself long ago that this blog would not get political- and I plan to keep to that promise. We are in a time of upheaval. There are those who would say we always have been, but don't really pay attention.
So maybe this blog can be like Solomon's ring- not everything to everyone, but SOMETHING to everyone, maybe everything to someone.
If nothing else, I offer a counter cliche to "things change."
I spent the last year or so in what felt like a constant state of flux. I travelled across the country, and set down roots somewhere far from everything I'd known before. I was jobless, job hunting, and hired several times- then fired for the first time in my life- so I officially started my own business, got hired again, and got married.
(Shameless plug: if you live in the Portland Metro area and want private cooking/ baking lessons in your own house, check me out at www.theblackhatbaker.com!)
More than once, I felt burned out.
More than once, I wanted to rip my hair out and scream in frustration.
More than once, I collapsed in a sobbing heap and just wanted to pull the earth over me.
More than once, it really goddamn sucked.
Through all of it, the things that kept me together were not great gestures. They often weren't expensive, or expected, or even "things" at all. Simple joys- by definition- usually aren't.
Whatever you feel like are your rocks in the stream, your anchors on reality- they are wherever you find them.
About the Author
The Black Hat Baker, a.k.a. Matt Strenger, lives in SE Portland, Oregon as a professional baker. Here, Matt bakes, cooks, exercises, and explores, returning to his wife and their hobbit hole up Mt. Tabor to write about all of it.
Email the BHB at blackhatbakery(at)gmail(dot)com
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