The other day I sent a very organized and system-y friend a voicemail asking if she’d teach me how to manage my increasingly unwieldy email account. It’s always growing and I can’t keep up. I had already declared email bankruptcy on one account — the one I’d had since college — a few months ago. There was just too much to dig out from underneath. I gave up.
I’m not a particularly organized person to begin with. Despite my best intentions, any system I put into place (chore charts, behavior incentives, waking up early to read/write/workout) rarely holds for longer than a season.
Regardless, I’m back at it: trying to organize my life.
Over the weekend I asked the boys what they wanted to eat for lunch each day of the week. Here’s what we came up with.
Monday: turkey and cheese sandwich.
Tuesday: bagel with cream cheese.
Wednesday: chicken nuggets.
Thursday: peanut butter and jelly.
Friday: free day (i.e. whatever I can scrounge up).
On Monday, I packed Phin warmed up left-over pork dumplings with fried rice that I’d made Sunday night for dinner into his teenage mutant ninja turtle thermos. I packed Asher a Pb&J. “But Monday was supposed to be for turkey and cheese!” Ash whined.
“Yep. I know. But we don’t have any more sliced cheese and this is what I made, so here you go,” I said. That was a list of suggestions, not rules. Plus, You’re being fed, child. No complaining.
Viv doesn’t have pre-school on Mondays and the start of this week was raining. Nadia had been sick with a non-descript virus for three days and she stayed home from school.
Nadia sat at the table with me while Viv played on the floor with kinetic sand, the kind that’s supposed to stay contained yet still makes a mess.
“My recipe is due tomorrow,” Nadia said, just remembering one of her assignments. For Teen Living (home ec) part of her final grade this semester is planning a meal for her family. Decide what you’ll make; find a recipe; grocery shop; set the table, make the meal; clean up. What I do every single day for dinner is her semester-long project.
At first, she chose to make lasagna. But so many other kids were doing lasagna, she wanted to do something different. I get this decision in my bones.
“What goes with sloppy joes?” she asked. Potato chips, I say, flooded with memories of church lunches where we’d pile our buns with tomatoey meat and then a haystack of UTZ chips, smash it down and crunch our way through the worlds messiest lunch eaten while wearing a dress.
Salad? Homemade fries?
“We can’t do potatoes,” she said.
“What?” I asked. “Why not?”
“We can’t make potatoes, rice, or pasta as sides. It has to be a vegetable or a fruit.” Something about making dinner healthy.
She gives me a funny look. “What’s coleslaw?”
I’m not sure where this child has been or what words I’ve used to call the chopped cabbage salad I’ve made a version of almost every week for the last few years.
“Do you have a recipe?” she asked.
I’m sure I did at some point. I loosely go off of one my friend Heather taught me and combine it with one my sister-in-law Mariana uses.
“It needs to have at least 4 ingredients,” she said. “Salt and pepper don’t count.” More rules. I was shocked as I mentally scanned through my vegetable side dish cache and realize I make an alarming amount of vegetables seasoned only with salt, pepper, and olive oil.
“Okay. Yes, I can make up a recipe,” I told her, adding that she’ll need to kind of trust herself as she makes it. Taste the dressing. See if you like it. Some of the measurements might need to be adjusted.
“Cabbage, let’s say 4 cups. Chopped scallions. I don’t know, maybe a 1/4th cup? Cilantro. ¼-½ cup chopped. 1 T olive oil. ¼ c white vinegar. 1 tsp sugar, which you probably don’t need, but just throw it in the recipe because it sounds more like a real recipe with sugar. Salt and pepper to taste.”
She typed it up, printed it. I made us lunch. Then I looked for a blueberry muffin recipe.
On Saturday, I had sat down to write in between baking a little over 3 dozen now-eaten banana muffins. Using a trick I learned from my friend Callie, I started writing just to see what would happen, no pressure in between the twenty minutes of each batch. Sixty minutes and forty muffins later, I had an essay. Maybe I could do that again today, I thought.
Nadia sat at the table while Viv and I made the batter. Butter, sugar, eggs, sour cream, flour, non-expired baking soda.
“You can drain the gross sour cream juice/water or mix it back in, it doesn’t matter,” I told Nadia. I explained why I cut the butter up before melting it in the microwave. I don’t know if she will remember the things I tell her as I bake.
She looked at me, wearily saying “okay,” more because she knows that’s the kind of response I like rather than because she’s grateful to know how to deal with sourcream juice or melting butter the fastest way. What I want to tell her, what I can’t and don’t say, is: please pay attention. I may not always be here. I’m telling you this because it took me years to figure out all this stuff out on my own. I want to give you what I can, while I can.
I eyeballed a teaspoon of lemon zest, working out of order from the recipe. By the time we added all the ingredients, the countertop was a mess. The batter, delicious.
Viv went into her room for quiet time and I sat down again, to write in between baking the batches of muffins.
Around the 18 minute mark, the air filled with the smell of warm flour rising and drying. When you start to smell what’s baking, that’s when you know it’s almost done, I told Nadia.
I want my children to know there are a thousand ways to skin a cat, as the saying goes.
I don’t want them to be fooled into thinking there’s a right way. There is no perfect.
Recipes have wiggle room. (Cooking has a lot, baking has a little.) Subsitutes can be made. Yes, you can adhere to a practice of strict replication. But you don’t have to. Not if you don’t want to.
You can always make it your own.
I want my kids to know: there is no one way to cook, to work, to parent; to worship, serve, give. There is no perfect way to create, nurture, or discipline; to universal recipe to manage friendship, marriage, stress, grief. There is no right way to deal with emails, kitchen counters, extracurriculars, or school lunches. (Although, I will stand by my argument that there is a right way to load our dishwasher.)
By the time my children have their own lives, with their own children in their kitchens, I’ll be so used to my ways, my methods, the ones that have worked for me, the ones — especially the ones — I’ve figured out the hard way, that I may start to think they are the right way. I may not realize, or remember, it’s a process to figure out what works. Or how often seasons change, necessitating adjustments, in this phase of life.
To my children: You’ll figure it out. Yes, you can ask me. (If you need to.) But most likely, it will be like my recipes: a little of this, some of that, whatever you have on hand, whatever is available in the season you’re currently in. I can try to write it down if you want me to, but really, you’ll just have to start. To taste it and made adjustments. And trust yourself as you go.
Mondays might be my day for baking. At least for now.