Ricotta and lemony herb tart with roasted beets and pine nuts

Ricotta and herb tart with roasted beets

Ricotta and herb tart with roasted beets

I had a birthday the other month, and I realized I don’t really want for anything, I don’t need anything more than I have. I want a dress with pockets and some wine that’s better than we usually drink, but that’s about it. And it’s summer, so lots of friends are going on big adventures, but we’re mostly going on smaller adventures, and I’m fine with that. I think I have an ample portion of whatever quality it is that breeds contentment. And why wouldn’t I? I have no excuse not to. And then I was thinking about people who struggle to be content in the face of adversity, Pierre Bezukhov; “The harder his position became and the more terrible the future, the more independent of that position in which he found himself were the joyful and comforting thoughts, memories, and imaginings that came to him.” Or Myshkin; the idiot, “And I dreamed of all sorts of things, indeed. But afterwards I fancied one might find a wealth of life even in prison.” And there are times we shouldn’t rest in contentment: in the face of injustice or cruelty or any situation that deprives another of the opportunity to be content. And maybe contentment is dangerous sometimes, because if you’re too comfortable you might lose yourself in your own small world.

Around the time I was thinking all of this I encountered Epictetus. He was a stoic teacher, but he lived four hundred years after the original stoics. (Four hundred years.) He said one should be “sick and yet happy, in peril and yet happy, dying and yet happy, in exile and happy, in disgrace and happy.” And he began life as a slave, his very name means “acquired.” In my ignorance, I’d always thought stoics taught that a person shouldn’t feel anything at all; not sadness or pain or desire or happiness. And yet according to my slight understanding of Epictetus, the whole point is to seek eudaimonia, which is happiness or flourishing or contentment. And to achieve this, “Make the best use of what is in your power, and take the rest as it happens.” Life comes at you in impressions, or phantasiai. And you don’t take these at face value, you question them, you talk to them. You say, “Stop, let me see what you are, and where you come from, just as the night-watch say, ‘Show me your token.” And if it’s a harsh impression, you “Make it your study then to confront every harsh impression with the words, ‘You are but an impression, and not at all what you seem to be.’ Then test it by those rules that you possess; and first by this–the chief test of all–’Is it concerned with what is in our power or with what is not in our power?’ And if it is concerned with what is not in our power, be ready with the answer that it is nothing to you.” And, like Pierre Bezukhov taking comfort in joyful comforting imaginings and memories, you “In the first place, do not allow yourself to be carried away by [the] intensity [of your impression]: but say, ‘Impression, wait for me a little. Let me see what you are, and what you represent. Let me test you.’ Then, afterwards, do not allow it to draw you on by picturing what may come next, for if you do, it will lead you wherever it pleases. But rather, you should introduce some fair and noble impression to replace it, and banish this base and sordid one.”

For there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. Not everything that Epictetus writes makes sense to me. I think passion and desire are beautiful and unavoidable emotions, and we should try to live with them rather than without them. But I like the idea of using your mind and your imagination to overcome anxiety and make your way through the world. I like the idea of working to change what you can and understanding that you can’t change everything. I like the idea of living in accord with nature, and with our nature, our name. “Further, we must remember who we are, and by what name we are called, and must try to direct our acts to fit each situation and its possibilities.” The name we are called is sister, mother, brother, father, friend, and when you act according to your name you do so regardless of the situation or the behavior of others. So if, say, your 13-year-old is unaccountably angry and moody and worrisome, you don’t respond with anger, you respond as his mother who loves him and tries to understand him at all times, if mother is one of the names you are called. I like the balance of this idea. I’m done with my ramble, but here are some Epictetus quotes that appealed to me.

Don’t demand that things happen as you wish, but wish that they happen as they do happen, and you will go on well.

When a raven happens to croak unluckily, don’t allow the appearance hurry you away with it, but immediately make the distinction to yourself, and say, “None of these things are foretold to me; but either to my paltry body, or property, or reputation, or children, or wife. But to me all omens are lucky, if I will. For whichever of these things happens, it is in my control to derive advantage from it.”

Avoid swearing, if possible, altogether; if not, as far as you are able.

These reasonings are unconnected: “I am richer than you, therefore I am better”; “I am more eloquent than you, therefore I am better.” The connection is rather this: “I am richer than you, therefore my property is greater than yours;” “I am more eloquent than you, therefore my style is better than yours.” But you, after all, are neither property nor style.

Every habit and faculty is maintained and increased by the corresponding actions: The habit of walking by walking, the habit of running by running. If you would be a good reader, read; if a writer write.

Here’s When the Saints go Marching In by Barbecue Bob, because I love it!

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FIrst frost stew

First frost stew

First frost stew

I’d been feeling very discouraged, and I thought I wanted to watch something light-hearted and stupid and funny, to forget about feeling disappointed for a while. But we didn’t have something lighthearted and stupid and funny, we had the exact opposite of that. We had Diary of a Country Priest, by Bresson, and it turned out that this movie was exactly what I needed. The film is long and slow and dreamlike, it’s narrated from the diary of a priest new to a small town–his first parish. “I don’t think I’m doing anything wrong in writing down daily, with absolute frankness, the simplest and most insightful secrets of a life actually lacking any trace of mystery.” But the film is full of mystery! It’s one of the strangest films I’ve ever seen, but in such a gentle, soft-spoken way, it’s quietly bewildering. At times it seems like a suspense film, a noir film, Gaslight or Rebecca. The priest faces antagonism from his parish, and we don’t know why. They suspect him of wrongdoing, he’s accused of terrible things, but we don’t fully know what they are. He’s accused of being a drunk, but it’s also possible that the wine he drinks might be bad in some way, or might even be poisoned. It’s never clear if all if this is in his head or if it’s real, and conversations with others rarely clear up the confusion. In his monologue he hints at events and confrontations that we never actually see. Of course, on an overtly religious level the film is about a man struggling with his faith, which is his job. He despairs of his ability to pray, and he expresses doubt when he should be professing his complete assurance. This childlike frankness extends to all of his actions. And like a child, it seems as though everything that people tell him comes from a different world, all the advice he’s given seems a little doubtful or strange, as it must seem to a child when somebody tells them to do something they don’t understand. He seems frustratingly weak, sometimes, but like a child, he has a strong voice inside that tells him who he is and what he needs. And, like a child, he makes questionable decisions sometimes about his well-being. The priest lives on wine, bread, and fruit, because he has a sensitive stomach, and this strange diet and his constant pain leave him dizzy and faint. The film has a beautiful blurred glow, it’s almost out of focus–apparently the result of a poorly attached filter, a mistake which the director loved despite the cameraman’s protest. The landscape is wintery and soft, and the film is visually beautiful. The priest’s face is luminous with a sad quiet glow, and we only see him smile one time, when he’s given a ride on the back of a motorcycle. He’s as childish in his pleasure as he has been in his pain all along. And when the man who gives him the ride tells him that he imagines they could be friends in different circumstances, he’s endearingly doubtful and glad. Because he’s incredibly alone, he’s completely isolated, and more than anything the film felt to me to be a portrait of loneliness. All of his doubts and fears and bad nights and strange moments of despair and weakness feel so much worse because he has nobody to comfort him. I want somebody to care for him like a child, like the sick child that he is, but despite rare moments of comfort and connection, this doesn’t happen. I’m not religious in any Christian sense of the world, but I find the priest’s search for faith and grace beautiful on a human level, or perhaps on the level of a human searching for something bigger than themselves, whatever name we happen to give to that. I spoke last week about the idea of soul being the seat of a person’s emotions, feelings, or thoughts or the moral or emotional part of a person’s nature or the central or inmost part of a person’s being, and I think that is something this priest would understand. His solemnity and his honesty raise him above the petty bickering of his parishioners. He doesn’t bother to defend himself from their accusations, because his understanding is on a completely different level. When he realizes this he says, beautifully, “I’d discovered with something bordering on joy that I had nothing to say.” I love that. The film is full of unexpectedly beautiful statements like this. His “old master” an odd sort of priest who appears throughout the film, follows a stream of advice with the words, “And now, work. Do little things from day to day while you wait. Little things don’t seem like much, but they bring peace.” I think that’s true in all of our lives, no matter what our circumstance no matter what our faith. As does his further statement, “Keep order all day long, knowing full well disorder will win out tomorrow, because in this sorry world, the night undoes the work of the day.” For the priest, the little thing that brings peace and order is his writing. He writes because he needs to, with a sort of desperate compulsion. At times he scribbles out what he has written, as if the words are too powerful or too doubtful or too strange. And his quiet voice, narrating the action sometimes in concert with the actions we see, sometimes just off, before or after the action, is dreamlike and compelling. Such a strange film, so beautifully full of questions and doubts. In the end the priest is given absolution by a friend who has fallen from his faith, and he says, “”What does it matter? All is grace.”

My friend Diane sent me an e-mail wishing me a “happy first frost,” and asking if I’d make some sort of stew for her. So I made this first frost stew. So-called not just because it’s warm and comforting, but also because it’s four kinds of white, flecked with a little bit of green. Butterbeans, small white beans, potatoes and rutabaga mixed with lemon thyme and kale. Warm but brignt.

Here’s Jesus by the Velvet Underground. “Help me in my weakness because I’m falling out of grace,” could be a line from the movie.
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