The Breath of God
“I said, ‘I will guard my ways
That I may not sin with my tongue;
I will guard my mouth as with a muzzle
While the wicked are in my presence.’
I was mute and silent,
I refrained even from good,
And my sorrow grew worse.
My heart was hot within me,
While I was musing the fire burned;
Then I spoke with my tongue . . .” – Psalm 39, 1-3 (NASB)
“It’s all about soul” – Billy Joel
I’ve always loved to eat. Always. Dinners with my dad’s parents always produced an acute case of Bloated Couch Syndrome whereupon the patient needed to sit and allow time for digestion to begin and the ability to breathe easily to return. Grandma was a cook of the old school: she used butter, lard, and pan-drippings. She saved the fat that rendered out of meat and bones when she made stews and stocks and kept it to use in future dishes. Somewhere along the line my parents got her and Grandpa a microwave oven. They used it for storage. Meanwhile, I usually managed to burn my Cheerios merely by pouring milk on them. One thing I wished for, more than a lot of other things, was to be able to cook like Grandma did. My hopes were regularly trod upon by reality.
And also by thermodynamics.
During all of this, I was of course a student in the public education system. I always knew what my parents would say when they came home from parent-teacher conferences. They would tell me my teachers thought I was a bright student, but I needed to apply myself. Schools, however, are built to produce academians (and I don’t believe that is an actual word), not to identify and and improve on a student’s natural aptitudes. The structure of the modern education system in Western cultures was created in the nineteenth century to prepare students for the industrial age. I wonder if the thinking of the day was that the tinkerer, the artisan, and the craftsman would be done away with as newer and better machines became more easily available and more widely used. Certainly their place in society wouldn’t be nearly as essential as it was in the century before. And just as the culinary knowledge that my Grandma took for granted has given way to shelves of convenient mixes and complete meals ready to be cooked straight out of boxes and cans, so has the perceived importance of those who lived their lives at the whim of the Muse, and made their income in the in-between times by building things to the specifications of others, dwindled.
I, however, have not lost hope. Because even though the average home cook doesn’t learn at their mother’s apron the sort of things that my Grandma did, those same people are starting to seek that knowledge out on their own. Books, rather expensive ones, on cooking now fill up huge sections of bookstores, how-to cooking shows are rather big business, and shows like Iron Chef America,Chopped, and 24 Hour Restaurant Battle have turned dinner into a sporting event. In the midst of all this, the demand for artisans and craftsmen has also seen an increase in recent years. Some will likely say that this is due to the fact that we as a society now have the luxury (due to industrialization) to engage in activities and hobbies like glassblowing, blacksmithing, and podcasting. I disagree.
If you ask me (and since you’re reading my article, I simply must assume that you have) artisans, chefs, writers, and the like are born, not made. Sure, you can take a person with no real skills to speak of in the aforementioned areas and teach them how to sculpt a vase, build a lasagna, or compose a haiku with acceptable results, but that same person will usually also recognize when they see a product from someone who is a real master in their field. I never figured that the love affair I began having with food at my Grandmother’s house would develop into any real skill in the kitchen; there was simply too much evidence to the contrary. In the same way, I never believed the assertions of both my teachers and parents when they told me I was smarter than I gave myself credit for, that I just needed to apply myself and things would come together. They didn’t seem to understand I was applying myself, I was trying; I just simply didn’t get it. In high school, classes like theatre, forensics, and speech offered some respite from the constant assaults of academia on my creativity, but they were islands in an ocean. College was the same, only more so and I didn’t last long. I was forced to acknowledge one simple fact: I was and would remain a lousy student. Then came cheesecake.
My Grandmother’s health had long since deteriorated to the point that she could no longer live on her own, much less cook any sort of complicated meal, and my inner glutton was suffering for it. Then one day around 10:30 pm I suggested to a friend of mine that we try making cheesecake. He immediately agreed this was as brilliant an idea as I thought it was and we made our way to the 24-hour market to buy what we needed. The resulting pie would make me weep today for how it was constructed, how it tasted, and how it was presented, but it was still better than the fodder we’d been getting at restaurants in our quest to bury our sorrows under mounds of calories. Of course, we both began receiving cheesecake requests from friends and family and soon craved variety. I bought my first cookbook then, one devoted entirely to the art of cheesecakery. I still refer to it from time to time today.
From there it went into cakes, pies, cobblers, roasts, pasta sauces, brines, marinades, birds, ice creams, and so on. And I didn’t just learn recipes, I began looking under the surface for common elements, learning on my own the techniques and procedures that chefs learn in lieu of recipes. Sure, I can give a person my recipe for my favorite turkey brine, but if I teach them how to build a brine they gain a skill that can be far more useful than a single recipe. And somewhere in there I realized all the things that had caused my math teachers to pull their hair out in clumps while attempting to get me to comprehend were starting to make sense. Same with the physical sciences, a good amount of biology, chemistry, even history and geography. I was learning and not only loving it, I was motivating myself to learn more.
As a Christian I view a lot of things through spiritual lenses. C.S. Lewis once said: “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” I promise not to get preachy in this article. I do, however, want to draw on my faith to make a point. I believe that God gave us a natural desire to go out and learn all that we can. And even if you don’t believe in God, a god, any gods, or just aren’t sure, we can all agree on one thing, if nothing else: there’s a whole lot out there that we don’t understand and it drives us bugshit.
The word “inspire” is actually used rather sparingly throughout the Christian Bible with writers like Peter and Paul preferring to use it to refer to a direct revelation of God unto an individual, in these cases one who was plumbing the deep mysteries of the universe. When Paul used the word he talked about inspiration being the breath of God, a breeze from which all of us could learn, teach, and correct that which was incorrect. Peter and Paul, however, were both speaking on purely spiritual matters. When it comes to art, I think divine inspiration is not only a lot more common, it’s built into all of us whether we realize it or not.
Our desire to go out and understand the universe is older than dirt, and people like David, Solomon, Job, Moses, Plato, Homer, Socrates, and Aristophanes all used art to try and make it all make some sense. Like the blind men groping onto different parts of an elephant, we all come away with a little piece of the puzzle that is both correct and incomplete. We debate and argue, we fight and scream, we plot and collaborate, and we’re still not really any closer to discovering the Truth, the whole Truth, and nothing but the Truth. So help us, God.
When Job asked God for answers on why his quality of life had recently taken a steep downward turn, God’s reply was a rather lengthy monologue which essentially broke down to: “I’m God, you’re not. Shut up.” Job got better, had a moment or two of clarity, and wrote one of the oldest epic operas in existence that, despite what some may tell you, does not confirm the actual existence of fire-breathing dragons, nor that dinosaurs and man ever co-existed. It was an attempt by one man to tell his friends, neighbors, family, and anybody else who would listen the deeply personal and complex spiritual journey that Job had undertaken while sitting in ashes and scratching his sores with a shard of pottery. Could he have said: “I believe that God is real because He spoke to my heart and showed me my big-ass pride problem”? Probably, but he found it more effective to write down a poem that would cover the journey from start to finish and tell it in a way that the average person could relate to. (After all, who hasn’t had a crappy time of things every now and then, and then had to deal with well-meaning friends who keep giving exactly the wrong advice?) In fact, I submit Job’s own personal journey started making a great deal more sense to him only after he’d written it down and examined it anew. I’ll even go so far as to say that he got even more enlightenment when he had to talk about the work with others.
The recent resurgence of independent artisans isn’t because we have the luxury of supporting them, but because humanity needs them. In the end, I think art is a reaction to our own helplessness in the vast ocean of existence. We struggle and strain, and we can’t always see how our own actions are impacting the world around us, so we make something up to help us cope. Whether it’s writing sonnets, building a dessert plate at a fine dining restaurant, or painting a mural, we’re all of us trying to make sense of things that don’t make sense. And when we do, something truly and literally awesome begins to happen: things start to make sense.
Not all of it, I don’t think we’ll ever understand all of it, but every now and then we get epiphanies that make the fact that we don’t get all of it fade to the background because we’ve finally understood a part of it and the feeling is like a drink of cool water after long hours of work on a summer’s day. That, people, is inspiration.
Inspiration isn’t what happens when I get the idea for a new story, or the idea to make a chile-chocolate cake, or when I search my heart and the Scriptures for some wisdom to get through life, it’s what I get when I finally see how those things can be made to work. It’s when we realize that life can and does have direction and meaning, and that what we do and say can echo throughout eternity if we simply take a deep breath and shout from time to time.