Lighting Up Just One Small Corner

I am starting to pull together the menu for our ‘Mid-Winter Christmas’ cooking retreat at the end of this month, and have been thumbing through cookbooks for inspiration. Yes, we are close to the shortest day here in New Zealand, and many of us – regardless of our roots – have no problem associating winter with Christmas, even in June!

This ‘Christmas & Other Winter Feasts’ cookbook was my mums. In Dec 2021 my mum and dad were Christmas shopping in London’s west-end, and were in Fortnum & Mason, London’s luxury grocery store. Founded in 1707, it’s truly an emporium of delight – 6 floors of exceptional food & drink, with ambiance, service and hospitality to match.

Londoners like to joke that it’s their ‘corner-store’, referencing that it sells a bit of everything – as long as you are in a spending frame of mind. From salmon (smoked on the roof) to wild grouse (when it’s in season), possibly the world’s best selection of jams and marmalades, and the opportunity to create your own blend of tea from 80+ types, it’s not only how wonderful everything looks and tastes, it’s about how it makes you feel.

My mum eyed up the ‘Christmas & Other Winter Feasts’ book above, and when her back was turned my dad purchased it as a Christmas gift for her. It’s full of much loved, time-honoured recipes to match the winter traditions, not only Christmas, but ‘bonfire night’, outdoor ice-skating, Boxing Day walks and New Years Eve parties.

My Christmas experiences of long ago, the familial ones and the cultural and historical ones might not have felt meaningful at the time, but looking back it all feels so precious.

My mum, as it would turn out, had a major stoke in January, and died 10 weeks later, aged 78. The F&M cookbook has never been used.. and yet it somehow is so full of memories.

When mum died, we all at one time or another fell back on the same cliché – she had had a good life. Would mum have agreed? What does that even mean?

I’ve been thinking a lot about life/death, in fact it was hard for a while to think of much else. Humans are ‘meaning making machines’, and I’ve felt the need to look for life-lessons from mums passing, but so far there’s just silence. Last week I heard a philosopher say; ‘the one philosophical relief about death is that we are not supposed to understand it.’ I found that surprisingly comforting!

I’ve been wondering if there’s enough ‘good’ stuff in my own life for it to add up to a meaningful one. Is that how it works? Athlete or scholar, activist or contemplative, we are all trying to live our lives in ways which brings as much fulfilment and contentment as possible. How does the equation work though? How many hours of meaningful activity in a day can off-set the mundane and meaningless? Can we discern between them at the time, or only in reflection?

Our values and interests can change radically over a lifetime of course, and I’ve found myself at times still living old beliefs and patterns, one to two years behind where my mind / heart is at. Socrates’ said that the unexamined life is not worth living – is this what he meant? So many questions.

The sixth-century Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu went as far as saying that goals are insignificant, and that accomplishments are not what makes our lives matter. Instead, Lao Tzu proposed a deep understanding of the essence of existence, which is mysterious. We, like rivers and trees, are part of “the way,” which is made of everything and makes everything and cannot ever truly be known or spoken of. From this perspective, life isn’t comprehensible, but he believed it is inherently meaningful—whatever position we occupy in society, however little or much we may do.

I feel in my bones that inherent in ‘meaning’ is happiness. And in my experience, happiness really means connection; to family, friends, community, a project, a place… and of course to nature – the mountains and rivers, forests, to the birds, and to the sun and stars. And I think that it matters that we care, that we feel, that we notice, even.

The poet David Whyte says:

We are here essentially to risk ourselves in the world. We are a form of invitation to others and to otherness, we are meant to hazard ourselves for the right thing, for the right woman or the right man, for a son or a daughter, for the right work or for a gift given against all the odds. And in all this continual risking the most profound courage may be found in the greatest risk and the greatest vulnerability of all, the simple willingness to allow ourselves to be happy along the way…

From ‘Consolations’, by David Whyte

Funny how wanting to be happy gets in the way of being happy… and that feels like a good place to park the contemplation for a while!

Thanks mum, I’ve got a bunch of ideas for the mid-winter plant-based cooking retreat. Drinks & sweets may include: Hot Toddy’s, Mince Pies, Florentines, Marzipan Truffles. And for a shared lunch; lentil ragù with chestnuts, sausages with gooseberry sauce, roast potatoes, parsnips & carrots, a whole roast cauliflower with plum tomato & sherry sauce, pan-fried sprouts, savoy cabbage & hazelnuts.

Time to do some experimenting in the kitchen I think, starting with the hot toddy. It’s more common to use whisky, but I go for brandy due to an incidence in my early 20’s which involved an all-night party in a Scottish castle, followed by a morning tour of a whisky distillery, but that’s another (and arguably more interesting) story…

To 1 cup steaming hot water, add 1 tbsp honey, 2-3 tbsp brandy, 1 tbsp lemon juice, 5 cloves, 1 star anise, 1 cinnamon stick. Allow to infuse for 3-4 mins while the honey dissolves…

And so here I am ‘risking’ my vulnerability with this blog again. I’ve always liked writing – it’s really just a more public form of journalling, which I’ve been doing since I was a young teenager, and it’s never not helped me make meaning of my experiences.

Shout out to Being Magazine who have invited my contributions of recipes and reflections these last 2 years, which is why (combined with launching Te Whenua Retreat) I’ve not posted here for AGES!

Thanks for being here! If you are on social media you can still find me at Cooking For Awakening, or at Te Whenua Retreat, where the winter-feast is happening in 10 days. I would love to hear from YOU, what you are finding meaningful, and what you are looking forward to this winter.

I’ll end with this quote from Zen Master Suzuki Roshi, who said; “In the Lotus Sutra, Buddha says to light up one corner—not the whole world. Just make it clear where you are.”

Bye for now!

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