Category Archives: Life Purpose

Cooking for funerals and other feminine arts

“You’re cooking a lot lately,” my husband said recently on one of the below-zero days that has defined our Minnesota winter. Actually, I have not been spending more time than usual in the kitchen. He is just reaping fewer of the rewards.

A plastic tub of banana muffins made with honey, oatmeal and mini-chocolate chips went to Mary, whose father died at 93. We delivered sweet potatoes with ginger and orange juice to Karen, after her third surgery for a detached retina appeared to be successful. (She had reminded me that “orange vegetables” are good for eyes.)Beef stew photo

Earlier we had brought her a calories-be-damned comfort meal of beef stew adapted from my mother’s ’60s-era recipe and soft spoonbread full of oil and cheese.

It is both a sign and a symptom of my sixty-something stage of life that homemade food is the essential gift to nourish friendship. Parents’ funerals have replaced weddings as the defining ritual of our age. Health has become less an assumption and a birthright than a blessing that can vanish in a flash.

My own mother died in September 2015. The spontaneous gifts of food from friends and colleagues meant so much that I noted them in my eulogy:

  • Rachel’s platters of fresh vegetables delivered the day she heard the news
  • Sarah’s homemade desserts for the funeral reception
  • Cathy’s fresh rolls and minestrone, still warm from her stove
  • Kate’s vegetable soup, which she urged me to freeze and then reheat on a day when we were overwhelmed with company.

When my father, a more conventional Christian, died last October, the women of the church served up a meal of tuna hot dish, fresh fruit and slabs of cake on paper plates. The United Methodist Men’s group that he attended for years was not in evidence.

Neither did any male friends bring gifts of food when my parents died. Cooking as a tasty and tangible sign of caring remains a feminine ritual among us aging feminists.

Kitchen confidential

I was a 34-year-old career woman who out-earned her husband and hadn’t yet decided whether to have a second child when Hillary Rodham Clinton made her infamous, on-camera remark about not having “stayed home to bake cookies and have teas.”

Clinton was an emerging hero to feminists of my age and ilk, middle-class white women whose mothers had forsaken any dream of paid careers to be homemakers and helpmates to their husbands. Today’s cultural commentators would call us “privileged,” and we were, but not for the reasons they might claim. We were the first generation of our race and class to have choices: about work, about reproduction, about marriage. About all of it.

Taken in that time, 1992, and in that context, Clinton’s “cookies” comment was more bold than condescending.Cookies

“Hillary was a revolutionary,” I told my younger son in 2016 when he caucused for Bernie Sanders. “You might not see it now, but for a woman then to be a lawyer and wear suits and keep her name and have only one child was remarkable.”

I am grateful, at 60, to recognize that “women’s rights” takes many forms and that feminism, at its core, means having the freedom and opportunity to be whomever you want to be. I practice some of the feminine domestic arts out of necessity. Preparing meals is cheaper and more healthful than eating out. Knitting is relaxing and can carry me through a multi-segment Ken Burns documentary. Cotton pants and blouses require ironing to look professional.

Cooking for others? That is a true gift of the heart and a legacy of yesteryear’s “church ladies” that I eagerly uphold. I keep the refrigerator and pantry stocked for my sons when they drop by. I relish cooking dinner during my brother’s annual Christmas visit. I am the first to volunteer to host potlucks for friends and neighbors.

“I’m just someone who likes cooking and for whom sharing food is a form of expression,” says no less an accomplished woman than Maya Angelou.

Who knew that the future of our democracy came down to baking cookies? Had Hillary recognized  the domestic arts as no threat to her independence, she may have softened her divisive qualities and sharp-edged reputation. We could have had a different president.

Chew on that.

Happy New Year? That’s up to you and me

Nothing is more over than Christmas when it is done. I feel that as I begin this New Year’s greeting the morning of December 26. We spent too much money. We ate too much food. All of it was an investment in people we love: our grown children, our siblings, and the friends and colleagues we are blessed to have.

But now the wind is blowing strong. A Christmas Day storm has left the streets rutted with ice. We are back to daily life, still facing the real-world problems that we briefly escaped over the holidays.

My neighbor’s empty house was nearly vandalized on Christmas Eve, because some desperate soul — perhaps addicted or unemployed — lacks the empathy to recognize how his criminal, intrusive actions will haunt this family for years to come.

A man chastised me on a neighborhood Facebook group the other day because I complained about the slippery sidewalks at the soon-to-open CVS drugstore near my house. “Caught in a war zone in Syria. Living in such poverty [that] starving is the norm vs. sidewalks aren’t shoveled where I like to jog. #FirstWorldProblems.”

Sanctimonious, to be sure (or, as my son said, “what a dick”), but I see the man’s point. Looking beyond my relatively privileged life to the real burdens some people face seems especially important at the end of 2016, seven weeks after an election that dashed my hopes for a more inclusive, benevolent society.

Counting blessings is the surest antidote to the inevitable post-holiday letdown. It also is a positive start to 2017, a year when my primary intention is to figure out how to contribute my time and talents to the causes I care about.

Blessing No. 1: A middle-class safety net protects my family.


My husband lost his job barely three weeks before Christmas, and I earn significantly less than I was making in a previous management position. Paying our mortgage and monthly bills on my salary alone will be a stretch.

And yet: We own property that brings us income. We have savings we can tap. My husband is able-bodied and employable.

Born and raised in what is now the declining middle class, my husband and I were taught not only how to save money but to invest it. Modest inheritances from deceased relatives have helped put our sons through college. My job provides health insurance and a generous retirement plan. Because we have maximized those privileges, we will make it. The uncertainty is scary, but we will be all right.

Blessing No. 2: Having less money is helping me discover who I really am.

We hosted three different Christmas celebrations this December, and the one where I recognized what I truly value was at a potluck gathering of working-class people whom I had never met. The mother and grandparents of my older son’s girlfriend, our guests talked about their jobs as a means to an end, not as some noble calling or an integral part of their identity.

That notion that the professional is personal — that title and salary confer self-worth and justify self-importance — has gnawed at me for the past two and a half years, since I sidetracked my career and stepped into a job that affords me less income but more time for résumé-enhancing activities such as blogging and going to graduate school.

present_2Having less money this Christmas forced me to give presents of homemade food or inexpensive items that required thought and creativity. Similarly, spending an evening laughing and talking with people for whom work is not their lives helped me, finally, to quit apologizing for my unconventional career choice and to reacquaint myself with the reasons why I made it.

Blessing No. 3: I have learned the practice and necessity of gratitude.

Back in 2011, a spiritual adviser asked me to exchange a gratitude list with her by email every night. The practice helped me notice and recognize blessings such as good health and strong friendships, the ability to support myself, and the dogs who bring me companionship and joy.

The discipline of that gratitude exercise carries on in my ability to seek perspective when I’m upset, to respond rather than react to disagreements or unpleasantness, and to remind myself daily of all that is good about my life.happy-new-year

“You have to participate relentlessly in the manifestation of your own blessings,” writes essayist and novelist Elizabeth Gilbert. It’s a modern take on an ancient Biblical passage: To whom much is given, much will be required. 2017 can be a Happy New Year but only if each of us, individually, thinks and acts communally — and has the grace to share what we’ve been given.

Leading with my left: an exercise in humility

Wisdom can come from unlikely places. The older I get, the more I recognize that as a piece of wisdom in and of itself.

Lately my learnings have come from a recurring shoulder injury that has me working to correct a weakness throughout the left side of my body. When I neglect my physical therapy exercises or allow ego to overtake common sense in my workouts, then the injury reasserts itself.

The discomfort has inspired me to break the habit of physically leading with — or favoring — my right side.

Quickly, without thinking, clasp your hands. If you are right handed, as I am, your right hand will fold over your left, with the right thumb on top. If you’re left handed, most likely the opposite will be true.

Back in my days as a fitness instructor, I would talk with my students about our tendency to lead with our dominant side whenever we are walking, weight lifting or simply crossing our arms or legs. That practice builds strength in one side of our bodies — and perpetuates weakness in the other.

Like any unconscious or unhealthy habit, favoring my right side has caught up with me in middle age. And so, as I work to reverse the practice, I’ve been pondering which habits of thinking — assumptions, judgments and beliefs — are similarly automatic.

Leading with my left

Regrets are all too common at this stage of middle age — the point at which we have “more yesterdays than tomorrows,” as Bill Clinton said at the Democratic National Convention earlier this week.No Regrets

  • One friend ruminates about why he has married two different women who have never measured up to a passionate love interest of his youth.
  • Many women regret the choices inherent in combining children and a career.
  • I’ve had to reconcile that I am too old to become a lawyer or a political reporter, knowing that I would have done well at either profession.

Leading with my left — developing new patterns of thinking — means I don’t allow myself to get stuck in the rut of regrets.

Leading with my left means I suppress my irritation when a friend who has depression doesn’t return my voicemail or text messages. Instead I talk to a man who has his depressive tendencies under control, and he suggests some kindhearted questions I might pose to her.

Leading with my left means trusting my gut — and my outrage — when a financial adviser with whom I had intended to invest my retirement savings tells me that my 26-year-old son lacks a “real job.” My son, a college graduate, works full time. He has health insurance and a 401(k) plan. He recently got promoted. He works hard at his craft.

But his job is at a brewery, and that apparently lacks cachet and aspiration for a woman who makes her living among society’s fortunate few. Her comment gnaws at me. “Is it important that your financial adviser shares your values?” I finally ask two friends.

Leading with my left means recognizing that I already know the answer. “All work is honorable,” I told my boys when they were young. I am proud of my son, and that’s the only message he will hear from me.

The underside of strength

An industrial psychologist introduced me to the notion of a “shadow side” of our perceived strengths. In yoga, we call it the marriage of opposites: yin and yang. If one part of us dominates — whether it’s a character trait or one side of our body — we will eventually fall out of balance.

I’m an ENTJ in the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), a decisive personality type that gets a lot done, but sometimes at the expense of others. In the two years since I stepped away from management, I have learned to exert influence rather than exercise authority and to value collaboration more than control.

Leading with my left at work is not always easy, but the softening seems particularly suited to middle age. “As my energy started to change, the energy that I got back from other people started to change,” said former police officer and co-founder of the Center for Mindfulness and Justice Cheri Maples in a recent episode of On Being.

In the case of my 91-year-old father, leading with my left has meant becoming a more present daughter in the time that he has left. For years my dad and I have kept a respectful distance, despite our similar strengths and countervailing weaknesses:

  • A strong moral code that constructs rigid definitions of right and wrong.
  • A love of fitness and exercise that judges weight gain as lack of discipline.
  • A sense of duty and responsibility that leads us to rely on work for self-esteem and recognition.

I spent the first afternoon of my summer vacation helping Dad sort through a lifetime of his beloved books. As he and my stepmother prepared to leave their house for the security and convenience of a seniors’ apartment, I stepped forward for the one way I could help.

An English major in college, I love libraries and bookstores. I don’t own an e-reader, and it has never occurred to me to buy one. Sorting through and boxing up my father’s books allowed me insight into his thinking and character in a way that his stoic, taciturn nature would not allow.

Leading with my left, in the twilight of Dad’s life, means letting go: of the blame for circumstances that were not his fault, of the insecurity that said he never really loved me. Leading with my left means being, today, the daughter I wish I had been for decades — forgiving him, forgiving myself, for being human.