Meatloaf at The Ritz

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Here at home, Jolly-old-England is known best for their afternoon tea service, antiquated monarchy, and, the occasional wonky tooth.

I mull over these stereotypes, and others, as I walk the streets of London.

I quickly become aware of the fact that, here,  I am the undignified American. When I stop into a drug store, I fumble through my change purse trying to make correct change for the cashier. He rolls his eyes when I make a self-deprecating joke about being a dumb American. He’s heard this one before, and, he’s not amused.

Brash, outspoken, unapologetically irreverent, unintentionally funny, and unavoidably emotional. — These are things that are said about Americans abroad. And, perhaps these were traits assigned to me by some of my UK counterparts, but, when I catch myself laughing a little too loudly with my friend at a hotel bar, I realize, they happen to be true.

I met up with my client (and friend) at several fancy venues over the course of the weekend. And, despite wearing the nice dress I purchased just days before flying out, I still felt kind of scummy. And, I started to wonder why that was — I wondered, what about my American-ness was so worrisome? Even a nice dress couldn’t cover the bits of me that felt too revealing here.

At first, I was sure that it was politics. Given the wretched state back home, I was worried, at least in part, about how I might be perceived. Would they think I liked Donald Trump? I was worried about being seen not just as an American person, but, as a product of America. I feared my own ignorance. What did this place and these people know about me that I didn’t? — London is old and has dignity. — I am young and have none.

When, I realized, that’s just it. None of us has dignity, really. We remain so, so small in a world where we fight so incredibly hard to be enormous. But, Humility has the power to level us. Humility goes beyond the feelings inside us — it places us in the Universe.

We all have questions about how we look from the outside. We wonder who we’re supposed to be, and how we can assimilate with others — and within ourselves. But, it’s when we let that curiosity become fear — we lose our Humility.

And, as I close this month of reflections on Humility — what it is, where we find it, and what it means in our day-to-day lives, I’m led back to what has become the reoccurring theme, in this, my Year of Happiness: Fear never amounts to anything good.

All the worry and fear around my American-ness reached fever pitch on Saturday before I entered my client’s event. The one I’d been so excited to attend. The one that meant something big for me and my business. The one that had brought 40 women together to celebrate their incredible drive and success. The one that asked me to face the reality of where I stood — in that moment. And, facing reality is daunting for all of us.

When we step out of our Humility, we step out of our same-ness. And, when we other ourselves, that is where our fear thrives. Instead of reminding ourselves of our similarities, our crazy-brains race to find ways that we are different. I tell myself: Maybe I am too brash, too outspoken, too irreverent, too  funny, and too emotional. — How will others read this? I’m doomed. — The sad American.

But, the women from the event started to trickle in, greeting me in their warm British accents. The air in the room began to shift. We recognized each other from Facebook. We embraced. We kissed each other’s cheeks. We made happy little shrieks and squeals. We shook hands. We laughed. We exchanged our business cards and stories about our struggle. We took notes about our dreams and determination. We celebrated our diversity. — And, we found solace in our same-ness.

No one at the event was worried about Her Majesty, The Queen or Donald Trump. We were there for each other, listening to the words in the room, not the voices in our heads telling us to fear all the things we didn’t know.

There was enough space in the room for whatever emotion I felt I wanted to bring into it. And, it felt good. Simple.

Humility isn’t a complicated thing. It is, perhaps, the simplest. Humility and fear are just mirrors for one another. And, to remain humble, you must remain small. You must find joy in what makes you, fundamentally, the same. And, you must find laughter in what makes you different.

And, after all my worrying over politics, it wasn’t Donald Trump that confused and baffled those I met over the course of the afternoon. It was our food that troubled my new friends from across the pond most.

“Is it true that, in America, you eat something called ‘Meatloaf’? It sounds disgusting.” I nod at her, “Yes. It’s a pretty popular home-cooking standard.”

“Oh God.” She says in her delightfully British accent. “And, it’s really made of meat?”

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The Waiting Room

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My cousin is halfway sleeping in her E.R. hospital bed.

I wait, pretending to read my book, for a doctor or nurse to slide back the glass door and walk in with some kind of news. Any news. But, for the last hour: Nothing. So, I shift my weight when my left ass cheek falls asleep and try to make eye contact with the nurse behind the sea-foam green hospital curtain. When she ignores me, I decide I need more coffee.

I have a yellow-sticker-name-tag that reads: E.R. VISITOR B30. This gains me easy entry to the E.R., much to the chagrin of the young man who has been arguing with the receptionist just outside the automatic doors. “Sir, until you can tell me her room number, I can’t let you in,” she says, almost chiding him. “She’s in B!” He shouts. “I told you that!” He flips his finger across the screen of his phone frantically, searching for something he knows isn’t there. “Sir, the entire floor is B. This is the basement.”

I’ve spent more time walking around hospital hallways in the past few years than I care to remember, I know the drill. Here, even when danger isn’t imminent, there’s something unsettling in the air. The sterile smell of plastic packaging and hypoallergenic laundry detergent. Muted colors. Whites and cool blues, aqua scrubs, and the occasional nurse sporting royal blue or purple for flair. The E.R. has a strange way of being quiet and loud simultaneously. People speak softly in static whispers and calm tones while, around a corner, a woman moans. A man sits in a low-riding gurney near the nurse’s station with his arm tied in some sort of makeshift sling that he’s obviously fashioned himself. He glares at me as I walk by him, for the third time, on my way upstairs for, yet another, cup of coffee.

At the Dunkin’ Donuts, next to the food court, there is a line eight deep. All hospital staff. They look at me with the same look I used to get at the hospital back in Oregon, where I spent a few months practically living in the cardiovascular intensive care unit with my then boyfriend. Nurses and doctors always shoot you that combo-look, pity and curiosity. You never can tell what that cup of coffee means to the person behind you in line. And, even amidst the sickness and sadness, there is something endlessly fascinating about hospitals. A permanent transience. A place where, between coffee breaks, it really is life and death.

In the hospital, everyone has a story. The stranger in the line next to you at Dunkin’ Donuts, might have lost their child, or husband, or sister. Maybe they have a brand new granddaughter. Maybe their brother is getting his first round of chemo. Maybe thier wife has had the hiccups for three days straight.

Or, maybe, like me, their cousin has appendicitis.

A doctor confirmed the diagnosis just minutes after my cousin returned from her CT scan. But, two hours have come and gone and we’re still waiting for the surgical resident to come and tell us what’s what. Even with a book and an extra large cup of coffee, time drags its heels while you’re waiting for someone else.

It occurred to me when my cousin’s eyes began to flutter awake — it’s waiting that humbles us. Humility is the moment that exists between fear and understanding. — It’s the unknown. — And, it’s palatable.

The surgical resident comes down and tells us that the O.R. is slow today. He’s going to call his attending and get my cousin set up shortly in the next available O.R. He says all this very nonchalantly, as he points, with his well-manicured surgeon-finger, to the line where my cousin needs to sign her consent form. To deflect our fear, we talk Grey’s Anatomy when he leaves the room. — He doesn’t hold a stinkin’ candle to any of the residents at Seattle Grace Hospital.

* * * * *               * * * * *               * * * * *

So often we think that an action will lead us to our own Humility. We think taking some step, performing some act of heroism or remorse or martyrdom gets us closer to being truly humble. But, as I sit in the O.R. waiting room hoping to get word that my cousin is out of surgery, I start to realize that it’s the white space that brings us to our knees.

On the couch across from me, a woman flips through an L.L. Bean catalogue, but, I can tell she isn’t looking at the glossy pictures. She’s just turning pages. She’s giving herself an action to perform. A movement to remove herself from her ultimate act of Humility — Waiting. She’s just sitting there, stewing in her own powerlessness. Another man stands beneath the giant TV screen that’s mounted on the wall. He has his hands on his hips and his elbows are pointed out like arrows towards both ends of the waiting room. He looks up at the screen, but, he’s not watching. He’s waiting. Waiting for a good word. A bad word. Any word. — It’s in spaces like these we learn how to care and feel and hope. Even when we think we are humble enough — there is something that can make us wait. There is something that can make us understand what it is to be small in the wake of love.

Before the family liaison has time to tell us, my cousin texts her husband to let us know she is out of the recovery room and in her own room on the fifth floor. When we walk in to greet her, she is buried beneath sixteen hospital blankets. “They were all heated when I got them. The nurses downstairs hooked me up because there isn’t a blanket warmer up here.” She says half smiling and half wincing at us and she shifts under her mountain of, now room-temperature, blankets.

I lean on the counter across from her hospital bed and we laugh about how many times she’s had to pee between consuming cups of multi-color, sugar-free Jell-O. And, it’s in these small moments, I feel lucky that in the life and death game being played here, inside these walls — we’ve won.

Humility is the relief we find in the things beyond us — the things that quiet the static hum we mistook for sound. The things that only make noise until waiting makes them silent.

 

Eat shit.

photo-oct-01-5-27-26-pmThe dog ate a pile of goose shit while we were out on a walk yesterday.

If that isn’t humble, I don’t know what is.

As I screamed out, “Murray! Drop it!” He looked back at me, still chomping away, his pink tongue sloshing over and around his loose, flapping lips, and he smiled his puppy smile. A true, shit-eating grin. — And, in that moment, my sheer disgust melted into laughter.

A dog’s life is 100% pure presence. And, in his moment of sheer delight, Murray lifted me out of my anxious, humanly concern and placed me in a state of acceptance and joy. With his own Humility, he humbles me too.

I sat in bed, overthinking my self-assigned task this past week, reexamining Humility. I tried to make sense of the role it has (or hasn’t) been playing in my life, when I realized: I take myself too seriously.

We get a lot of conflicting messages these days. As our culture moves its focus to self-awareness and growth, it feels like there aren’t many seeds of Humility sprouting up around us. Self-interest has always, to some extent, reigned supreme. And, even when we’re aware enough to think that, perhaps, we should be a bit more humble, we end up finding out that manufactured Humility isn’t half as potent as the real deal.

Humility isn’t so much an action as it is a state of being. So, how do we get there?

Murray stops to sniff and lick a particular patch of sidewalk, he looks up at me and his eyes ask, “This is good, why aren’t you getting in on this?” And, for a minute, I wonder why licking a spot on the sidewalk where a child likely dropped an ice cream cone three days ago isn’t the highlight of my day? — “What can I tell you Murray? We play by different rules.” I say before urging him on, gently tugging his leash.

But, Murray makes me think. While I have no desire to lick the sidewalk, I start to ask myself what I might be telling myself is off limits? My Year of Happiness has shown me that, we don’t have to play by all the rules we thought we did. In fact, rules are pretty much garbage. They limit us in ways that can take us away from the moments for which we should be 100% present. We don’t lose everything by going off the cuff. I don’t know where that rumor started. Risk opens us up to humbling experiences, so, why are we cutting ourselves off from Humility by limiting our lives to predictable and safe experiences?

It’s difficult writing about being humble. Especially when I’m trying to sound like I know what I’m talking about while aiming to both sound, and remain, humble. Even as a quasi-academic effort it’s exhausting and requires patience that feels wasted. It’s much simpler than we’re making it. Humility, as a concept, is easy: In the grand scheme of things — We’re small. — But, that’s a pretty big concept for a self-obsessed culture to wrap its head around.

In a 12-Step meeting, someone once told me: When your world is big, your problems are small. When your world is small, your problems are big. — That statement, is pretty profound. And, for me, it’s more or less the definition of Humility.

Living with Humility doesn’t mean you have to live like a monk. However, it does mean that if you’re going to enjoy your time here on Earth, you’ve got to show up and be willing to experience things moment by moment. Like Murray. If we could allow ourselves to comprehend our own insignificance, I think we’d eat a lot more shit.

We let our brains get the best of us. We forget the moment that’s right in front of us. And, that’s when having a dog’s undiscerning palate, the kind that can lick the sidewalk outside of a CVS and look back up at you with his eyes expressing each new, exciting flavor of dirt like a four-legged sommelier, comes in handy. Animals are truly humble. Their innocent nonchalance is the closest I’ve come to understanding my own Humility. Their worlds are enormous. For Murray, one city block is an unending adventure where he is in a constant state of discovery. New smells, secret hiding places, and life’s simple pleasures — a child’s grubby hand reaching out from a stroller to pet his snout.

Beyond survival, animals exist purely in the moment. — Naps. Snacks. Pets on the head. The intense urge to rip apart a chair, couch, or chew toy. It’s all a visceral love of the moment. The moment is never lost on animals, because they are always right there in it.

And so, it comes full circle as I laugh my ass off in a patch of grass when I realize that Murray has, in one simple action, taught me the same lesson that Baba Ram Dass has taught me over a span of years, in multiple books, and through meditation practices.

Humility, my friends, is about eating shit. It’s about living without fear. Fear is too a small a problem for such an infinite world. Humility is the endless possibility that surrounds us if we choose to get out of our own way. And, when we allow ourselves to be open to everything, the world gives us that magical feeling that reminds us we are limitless.

And then we get to ask everyone, “This is good, why aren’t you getting in on this?”

Eating Humble Pie

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Ten years ago, I became obsessed with baking pie.

This obsession came years before I got sober or became a vegan. At twenty-two years old, the fire-water-fuel for my pie-baking frenzy was almost exclusively pint glasses filled with vodka-cranberry. And, all my pans were slathered with rich, Irish butter.

My pie-making phase was the result of, what can only be described as a difficult time in my life. I had just graduated college and I had no idea what I was doing. Thrust into the world with a BA in Creative Writing and Irish Studies, I was well equipped for absolutely nothing. And so, I sat in the living room of my apartment and read every pie crust recipe I could get my hands on.

Even with absolutely no direction, I did know one thing: I was going to make the best damn pie ever baked. And so, it began. I spent the first few months perfecting my crust. First, one made with butter. Only butter. Then, shortening. Only shortening. Then, a combo of the two. Then, back to butter alone.

There was a time, I made a pie almost every day, but at the very least — three times a week. My boyfriend and I had friends over for dinner several times a week just to avoid the sheer surplus of pie. Banana Cream. Raspberry Chiffon. Chocolate Mousse. All-American Apple. Blueberry, with a lattice top. Pumpkin-Pecan. Cranberry-Pear. Sour Cherry. Lemon Meringue. — I could go on.

I didn’t know it then, but, looking back, I see how my great pie obsession filled some great need within me. The need to excel. The need to perfect. Pie gave me something to strive for, something to be great at, and when I felt helplessly alone — something to snack on.

As I’ve grown and changed in sobriety, my perfectionism, my drive to achieve, and my need to create things seamlessly has changed quite a bit too. I’ve learned about the unhealthy patterns we create in our desperate attempt to save ourselves from the thing we fear, usually — the unknown.

During my great pie period, pie was more than just a relaxing evening in the kitchen. It was tangible evidence that I hadn’t failed. My truth was baked in, and, you could taste it in every flaky, buttery slice. If nothing else: I was a fucking baker of pies. And, even when I did fail — yes, some of my pies were completely inedible — I had a new goal. I was going to make that pie again, and, this time, it was going to be so good it would make Martha Stewart weep.

Almost exactly a decade later, I’m starting to realize that if you want to learn, grow, and truly change there’s only one kind of pie we should strive to bake perfectly: Humble Pie.

I’ve spent a lot of my life struggling to do things on my own. Because, I always thought that asking for help was a weakness. I thought that admitting that you couldn’t be perfect on the first try was a sure-fire way to get overlooked. But, sobriety has taught me that if we are going to strive to be perfect at anything, we have to be open to letting others tell us what they see (and taste). We have to be open to criticism. We have to fork over a piece of our pie and be comfortable with being told that the filling is way too jammy and the crust is far too soggy.

Humility is a confusing word. It’s often accompanied by negative connotations. And, that’s why I’m devoting the seventh month in my Year of Happiness to Humility and its nuances. Humility isn’t negative when it is practiced in it’s truest form. Being humble is being able to step back and appreciate that something supersedes you — it’s accepting that fact that you’re not always the absolute authority. Humility is possessing the ability to learn, with grace.

So often, we lump Humility in with martyrdom. We step back for show. We let someone else take the stage because we think it will look good for us — but, false Humility stinks of insecurity. And, insecurity is one of the main reasons that we find it so difficult to admit that — THE PIE JUST ISN’T ON POINT.

In the dictionary, Humility is synonymous with “meekness,” “modesty,” and “unassertiveness.” But, I don’t think that’s always true. I think that being able to step back from one’s self and see where there is room to grow — is straight up ballsy. I think it’s inwardly assertive. I think it requires a strong backbone, grace, and confidence to be truly humble. Learning isn’t easy. If it were, we’d all be experts and scholars. Change requires facing the unknown, and, being willing to fuck up.

These days, I don’t bake as much as I used to, but, I still love it. And, even though I perfected my crust ten years ago, a few years back, I had to start from scratch when I went vegan. I’ll be the first to admit, margarine isn’t the same. But, I’m learning. And, I can still make a vegan lattice top pie that would make Julia Child proud.

The truth is — I don’t need pie anymore. I find comfort in knowing, I don’t have to be the best and neither does my pie. And, if people don’t like my aquafaba meringue, fuck ’em. More snacks for me. But, I know I still have to bake, and eat, a Humble Pie on occasion. Because, unlike ten years ago, today, I am open to suggestion and I’m ready to fail.

So, take the pie or leave it. But, if you take it, I recommend the Pumpkin-Pecan.

 

 

Photo: My All-American Apple Pie, Lattice top w/stars.