Good afternoon, friends and neighbors.
Way back when I first started this blog, it was only meant to be a little newsposting feed for what was coming out of my tiny kitchen in New Jersey. Since that little kitchen wasn’t putting out too much… neither was the blog.
When I started writing on a regular basis, I didn’t always have new recipes or projects to talk about- but I did have my recent quest to lose weight, get stronger, and put the lie to the self-destructive lifestyle popular in the culinary world. After speaking with my sister- who was trying to flex her experience with brand management and degree in marketing- we decided that “What’s On The Bench” need a tagline: Reps, Rolling Pins, and Building A Better Baker.
Time went on, and I started to realize that living a healthy life in the culinary industry wasn’t just a matter of working out or eating your veggies regularly. Being a cook is mentally and emotionally taxing- so our brains and hearts need care as well. I wrote about mental health- mine and others.
What about emotional health, though? What soothes your mind doesn’t always soothe the heart and soul- couldn’t I write about the things that by-pass the intellect and just make people smile without them realizing it?
Those are the moments of simplicity and beauty that I love, and they are everywhere. So the blog became “Reps, Rolling Pins, and Beauty in the Mundane.”
Of all the evolutions my writing has gone through… that one might be my favorite so far.
The Beach is Full of Sand
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour…”
– William Blake, “Auguries of Innocence,” 1803
One of most interesting things I discovered about myself on changing to a healthier lifestyle was the emotional lift I got from the simplest things. Living in New Jersey, I loved listening to the rain on my porch window while sipping a whiskey at night. In Portland, I find myself walking through Mount Tabor Park and smiling at everything from the shape of the trees to the texture of the dirt. At work, the smell of zested lemon or the texture of perfectly mixed pie dough is like getting a breath of fresh air.
Just as interestingly, with changes in my mental health, I’ve found myself lending additional weight to these feelings. “I should make myself a pie, that’ll help me focus.”
“I should go for a walk, I always feel better afterward.“
“I wish I could hear it rain… that always helps me fall asleep.”
Self-knowledge is a splendid thing- but just like taking a hobby and making it into your livelihood can change how you feel, taking the things you know you love in life and starting to rely on them changes how they work.
“I’m making this pie. Why do I still feel frazzled? This is supposed to help- it always has before!”
The moments of beauty and peace we experience in life- regardless how we find them- are always lovely, but we are also creatures of variety, and we have a tendency to take things for granted.
Parks won’t always feel quite so peaceful, baking definitely won’t always be soothing, and my brain will be too wound-up to enjoy hearing rain at night. So what can be done instead? Practicing gratitude can help keep you from taking your favorite beauties for granted… but even more fun- and exciting- is finding and appreciating more.
If you can “see a World in a grain of sand”… the beach is full of sand. The only limit to beauty in your life is how long you can spend appreciating it!
Not Everything Must Be Beautiful to Have Beauty
In Taoism, there is a concept called “p’u”- “The Uncarved Block,” or the simplicity of a natural state. There’s a short story that describes this concept perfectly:
A man stood outside his house grimacing at a tree in the front yard. The tree was big and old, but the branches were all twisted. The bark was black, and it didn’t bear any fruits or nuts. “I should get someone to remove this thing… it’s nothing more than an eyesore.”
An old teacher came walking by and stood with the man for a moment- hearing his complaints and studying the tree. After a while, the teacher spoke:
“You know, before your house was built, a lovely stand of trees covered this entire property. When I was a child, I loved playing in it with my friends. All the trees, except this one, were tall, straight, and beautiful.”
“Eventually, loggers came. They looked at your tree here and decided that it’s wood would smell if it burned, so they took some of the other trees. Then carpenters came. They saw this tree and decided it wouldn’t make a straight board, so they took some of the others. On and on it went… out of that entire stand, this tree is the only one left of my childhood playground.”
“I am too old to swing from trees anymore… but the children on this street play in your tree often. The twisted branches make for easy climbing. And though the trunk is black, it still grows a full crown of leaves in summer- I have found myself resting in it’s shade on hot days.
“Just because the tree is not useful to your eyes does not make useless- or less beautiful. If it had been, all those years ago, it would not be here.”
While this story illustrates the Taoist principle of letting things be as the are and using them as they are meant to be used (rather than creating trouble by forcing things to be the way we want them), it also illustrates my point quite nicely- that beauty doesn’t have to be beautiful.
It’s just as possible to hear the sounds of life in a neighborhood cafe as it is in a quiet park- in fact, that’s often the reason I like to write in them.
You can find a moment of peace meditating in your room… and you can find it driving down a highway.
The trickiest part of “beauty in the mundane” part is, amusingly, that last word- finding things to admire in the boring, dull world that we tend to take for granted… and it’s taking it for granted that makes things mundane.
The Easiest Way To Fill Your Life With Beauty
1. Keep Your Eyes Open (Awareness)
Take some specific time to unplug yourself. Take out the headphones and lift your eyes up off your shoes. Take a deep breath and then just… look at things. Really well. Try memorizing details- the cracks in sidewalk, the shapes of trees, the fact that someone painted a “D” onto the sign for NE Flanders St.
2. Stop and Think About Stuff (Mindfulness and Gratitude)
How long has your neighborhood been there? Who do you think planted that tree? Isn’t it friggin’ crazy how weeds and flowers can still grow through cracks in cement? Have some coffee in your favorite mug, and really notice the mug- how the handle feels in your hand, the imperfections of the design, the little chip on the side from that time it fell out of the cupboard and you were scared it would be broken.
Thank your pet for loving you, and for being there to let you pet it. Thank yourself for having the skill to make yourself food- whether it’s because you are hungry or you want to relax. Be grateful that the house you live in and the world outside are full of things to make your life better and to make you happy. Yeah, there’s some shitty parts too… but I guarantee it’s not ALL shitty.
3. Imagine It Could All Be Gone Tomorrow.
“If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God which had been shown! But every night come out these envoys of beauty, and light the universe with their admonishing smile.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
This isn’t a case of “seize the day” or “#yolo” – and it’s not an abstract. Nothing lasts forever. Everything you see and feel and hear today will be gone, or totally different, tomorrow morning.
None of this needs preparation- just willingness. Don’t wait for tomorrow. Don’t even wait to finish this sentence. Just take a deep breath, and have a look at the world while its still here.
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