Masala Sauce: Anger, the Internet, and Indian Food

A few weeks ago I made Indian Masala sauce. It’s a tomato base with a blend of amazing spices: curry, garlic, cinnamon, nutmeg, red pepper. Butter and cream. It’s tomato-ey and spicy and cozy and creamy all at once. It’s called a simmer sauce, because you’re supposed to keep it on low heat for an hour or so, letting the flavors blend together.

The thing with tomato sauces, I’ve found, is that you can’t just let them have a pleasant, tiny-bubble simmer like you can with water or milk. The heat stays deep at the bottom, mingling with all the stuff you’ve put in the sauce, until suddenly, big bubbles reach the surface, pop pop, splattering red all over the stove. And on your clothes, if you’re unlucky (I am).

The masala sauce has become a metaphor for me, as most things in my life do. In this case, the masala sauce reminds me of myself, especially those feelings I tend to keep deep inside.

I don’t usually consider myself to be an angry person. I’m pretty even keel, keeping a straight face and feeling my emotions on the inside. This sounds pretty good, healthy even. But feeling all your feelings on the inside doesn’t mean they don’t exist; it just means other people can’t see them.

Take anger, for instance. I usually keep my anger close to the chest. It bubbles deep in the sea of my soul, making the waters bitter and murky, poisoning myself and the people closest to me. Now, I truly do mean well. I truly do love people. I truly am kind. I’m not one of those perennially angry people who get cut off in the grocery line and unleash a string of expletives. Out loud.

No, my anger is like the masala sauce. The blend of introversion and high sensitivity and empathy, my own personal curry, combine with the garlic of current events and the cinnamon of relationships, the nutmeg of tender memories, the red pepper of painful events. Butter of better judgement, cream of spiritual wisdom. And in the thick, murky tomato sauce of clouded perspective, all these things blend together. Add heat (the stress of really anything), and there’s my anger. It looks good and smells amazing on the outside, but if you get too close, it’ll sear and stain.

Last week I took an unplanned social media hiatus. It was only for a few days, and it wasn’t a straight fast, but it was a big reduction in how much social media I consume. While I didn’t experience a drastic change in my inner psyche, I did notice something: I wasn’t as perpetually, simmeringly angry.

I think we underestimate how much scrolling through the inner thoughts and opinions of friends and strangers can completely overwhelm us. If you’re like me, you have a wide variety of friends and people you follow, all from various social, religious, economic, and political backgrounds. My average day on Facebook is a mental Red Rover. As someone who has a lot of empathy, this is emotionally exhausting, and I want to scream, CAN ALL MY FRIENDS JUST GET ALONG? Social media often feels like one of those cartoon fights where everyone’s in a cloud of dust kicking and punching each other. It’s easy to feel like the real world is this way too, and then it’s easy to feel utterly, perpetually… angry.

So part of my fast was a simple act of removing myself from it all, to enjoy the feeling of thinking my own thoughts and making sense of my own experience, without the filter of others’ opinions. Even if your friends and followers aren’t actively attacking your viewpoints, it’s easy to feel that sense of judgement, that sense that you need to polish up your life and thoughts before presenting them. All this stress, real and perceived, mixes with our personal blend of anxieties and insecurities, with the pain of current events, the peppery taste of snark. And soon we’re all simmering, stewing vats of masala sauce, bubbling up at each other, searing and staining.

I’m still learning what to do about this. I think there’s a place for anger, if only as an indicator that something is going on under the surface that needs to be addressed. I think anger can be useful, but I also think that none of it are well equipped to handle it wisely. Anger attaches all our strong parts to our vulnerable ones, riddling otherwise righteous intent with selfishness. The pot boils over with so much stuff that we can’t distinguish the helpful from the unhelpful, the actions we must take from the actions that are reactive.

The only thing to do, I’ve found, is to turn off the heat. It’s only when the pot has cooled down that you can start to work with the sauce. That looks different for each of us, but I’d bet that for most of us it means stepping back and trying to relate to each other, and not merely attacking the issue at hand. It means challenging the way things are and asking how they got there in the first place. It means curiosity: why are we reacting this way? What do we all want? How can we really get to where we want to go?

For me, it’s important to remember that anger, whether it simmers (stays internal) or boils over (is externally expressed) is only useful if I do two things: think about it critically, and then once I’ve made sense of it, express it.

For someone who tends to fly off the proverbial handle, this means asking those deeper questions, and for someone like me, it means not stopping at those questions, but continuing on to share my feelings after those questions have been asked.

I wonder what would happen if we got more curious about our own thoughts and the thoughts of others. I wonder if it would look more like integration than division. Because the truth is this: no matter what your cooking methods are, all food has to cool down before it can be eaten. And eating—that act of communion and comfort and joy—is the whole point of food—ideas and emotions—in the first place.

I wonder what could happen if we learned to enjoy that meal together.

 

 

Rest in Solitude, Heal in Community

This summer has been a season of transition. Amidst moving, new living situations, new jobs, and new prospects for the future, I’ve found myself overwhelmed and suddenly unsure of everything. It’s interesting how when you’re in a life stage that has a deadline (i.e. school), you look forward to the time of endless possibilities, and then when the gate opens and you have the freedom to do anything, all those endless possibilities suddenly seem like too much.

I’ve noticed that I freeze up whenever I have too many choices. Just ask my husband how long it takes me to pick out cold medicine at Walmart. I’ll stand in the aisle, staring blankly at the shelves while my nose runs and my eyes water and I whine that my head and body and everything hurts. You know how they make fun of men for being bad at being sick? They never met me.

“Just get the DayQuil,” Alex says.

“But there might be another brand with more caplets in it for less money!” I cry. “I have to look at them all. Or I could get liquid medicine. But there are so many brands of that! Oh, I hate being sick! Oh, to be well again!” and I wring my hands.

Thirty minutes later, we walk out of there with a box of DayQuil.

(I’ve since learned that a store with less options, like Aldi, is a better bet for me.)

As with DayQuil, so with life. The choices and decisions pile up until I don’t know what to do, I don’t know what I want, and I don’t know what I even value.

My approach to overwhelmth is often to retreat, monklike, into my own space and where I feel comfortable and in control. Since I’ve started doing research on human behavior and psychology and have discovered the ins and outs of introversion, of which I am a subscriber, it’s become a little easier to excuse my monkish state and to be okay with excessive solitude. I’m recharging, I tell myself. I’m self-caring. I’m figuring things out in the quiet.

And many times, I am. I’m still a firm believer that we find rest in solitude. And that goes for all of us, not just those introvertedly-inclined. We all need a moment to be with ourselves, to tune into our inner minds and hearts. I discover a lot in prayer, in reading, in yoga, in writing. These are all things that pack the most punch when I do them alone.

But solitude is only one side of the equation. Self-care only goes so far, and self-care doesn’t always look like sitting alone on your bed with a candle (don’t do that; it’s a fire hazard). Human beings are made for community, too. We may find rest in solitude, but we find healing in community. It’s in community where I gain perspective, where I realize that the things which freak me out most in life are not things I carry alone.

In The Quotidian Mysteries, a collection of essays which is just an excellent book that everyone should read, writer and poet Kathleen Norris talks about how the everyday routines we take for granted serve to ground us in reality. And part of this is spending time with others:

[We] need the daily love of other people to reassure us that our lives have value.

In community I find solidarity, and I learn to pay attention to other people’s needs and fears too. In community I can be honest about my failings and find some catharsis. And often, community even connects me with people who have answers to the very questions that are overwhelming me, from the family friend who knows of a job I’d be good at, to the new friend who’s doing good things in my hometown, to the best friend who understands how I feel and prays for me.

Engaging with community can be as simple as putting aside my work to chat with my husband, taking a day trip with my family, or socializing after church. Or it can be as complicated and challenging as introducing myself to someone I haven’t met or going to an event I’m nervous about.

Solitude is only good when it doesn’t become loneliness. When I’m lonely, I forget who I truly am and I forget that my life has value. I need my friends, my family, my community, to connect me with the world again. And the beauty of it is that they need me too.

Giving love away doesn’t deplete or decrease; it only multiplies. And taking part in community only multiplies and strengthens the ties we have to each other and to our inner selves.

When I do that, the wall of overwhelming life doesn’t see so scary anymore.

From Numbness to Feeling: My Return to the Church

The room was filled with people. And the room was huge, so it was a lot of people. Hundreds of us were crammed in the black box room that had a stage and big screens in one corner. Lights in various colors flared. Upbeat music played. The crowd of people became a sea of heads and arms under the clouds of light and music.

It was my first time visiting this church. My best friend invited my husband and I along. He and I had been on an unfortunate streak of non-attendance, not because we didn’t think church was something we should do, and not because we had given up our faith or anything. The reason was simple: we hadn’t found a good church near school. The reason was also complicated: my heart was numb and suspicious.

Around the time Alex and I got married, the church I had grown up in for almost a decade turned its back on my family when we needed it most. This wasn’t the first time this had happened to us. Our exit from my childhood church was similar, though under different circumstances. This time, although I personally wasn’t involved in the details of this episode, I was still more affected than I initially thought. Months after the earthquake, the aftershocks hit me over and over again, when I least expected it.

The community of people I’d spent my teenage years with was now gone, and even worse, some of them were hostile. I was a new wife, and I craved some kind of support and advice, but the pool of people I felt I could trust was dry. The counsel I’d once relied on now seemed compromised with bitterness and hurt. I couldn’t even trust myself; everything I knew about my identity as a Christian was steeped in teachings that I now knew were false, in mindsets that were heretical, in motives that were misguided. For me, identity is so important, and I felt it swept away in a matter of months.

But I knew one thing: I could trust God. I just had to figure out who He really was. So in many ways, the first year of my marriage was like coming to God all over again. I couldn’t trust other people to guide me. I pretty much sat down with the Holy Spirit and said, “You’re gonna have to show me the right way to live. I don’t know a damn thing, and I don’t trust anyone to tell me the truth.”

I had always thought living a life pleasing to God was a clear-cut path: do these things, live this way, and you’re pleasing in the eyes of God. Little by little, He stripped away that comforting illusion. He gave me glimpses of the vast, terrifying freedom we have in Christ. My path became more rough-hewn, more wild, more like cutting out a path in the woods than following a well-worn road.

I learned not to be afraid of changing or evolving, of outgrowing who I used to be in favor of who God was making me now. My approach to my personhood and my marriage became different. And I clung to God because I really didn’t have the luxury of clinging to anyone else. I wasn’t just trying to find the way to Him; I was making my way with Him. It was a sucky time, yet it was when my faith truly became my own.

Except there was one catch: I couldn’t go to church. I did, physically, but my heart and mind felt like the skin had been ripped off. I was raw. Every time I went to church I was no more than a body in a room. I didn’t sing. I didn’t close my eyes to pray. I spent the sermon doodling in my journal. It’s not that I didn’t want to participate. I really did. I’d spend every church service on the verge of tears, because I wanted my heart to be there. I wanted to be invested. But it wasn’t. I didn’t trust any church not to make the same mistakes of the churches I had grown up with.

I realized this was a common mistake: to assume all churches are hypocritical because a handful are. I knew that there are no perfect churches; they’re made up of human beings, and human beings are stupid. That’s why we need God in the first place. But my brain knowing these things didn’t help the deep bruising in my soul. Our church had prided itself in being true, welcoming, and understanding, a place where the Spirit of God worked. A place that really had the answers. And it was all a sham, and now I couldn’t trust any church that claimed to be the same things.

For a time, I couldn’t go to church at all. It’s like when you have an injury. You know that in order to fully heal you have to eventually start exercising, which will be painful. You’ll have to start doing all the things you did before you got hurt, but with timid weakness. But before you do that, before you start to face the pain and build up strength, there’s a space of time where it’s okay not to expect anything of your injured body. It’s better, even, to rest and wait while the worst of the pain passes. For a season, that’s what I did with church.

And then my best friend invited me and Alex to the church she attended at school. It was one of those big, trendy churches you find in the suburbs of a city. And right away, I was suspicious. There were too many lights. There were two huge screens. They said things like “We’re a different kind of church” and the speaker that first week wore running clothes (it figured into his sermon, but still). The church had all the red flags on my list: it claimed I was welcome, it claimed it brought everything back to the basics of loving Jesus, it claimed it was “a church for people who’ve given up on church.”

Yeah, it was too perfect.

Also, there’s a weird stigma I noticed in myself and that I’ve since noticed in the church: to automatically discount bigger churches or megachurches. Perhaps this is only a phenomenon in small towns where there are small churches, but the prevailing attitude seems to be that if a church has more than a hundred people who regularly attend, its theology is automatically shot. As if Jesus didn’t speak to ten thousand people at a time, and as if Peter didn’t bring three thousand people to the Lord in one day. But I digress.

I was numb as ever, and I’d gotten to a place where I accepted the numbness. I couldn’t will it away; I couldn’t make myself feel comfortable or safe in a church. I could only accept where I was and hope that someday, maybe in ten years or so, I’d actually feel at home. In the meantime, I kept going to church, and I gave myself the space to dislike it if I wished.

It was a funny time, because while I felt deep spiritual growth in my person, none of it took place as a result of church. I can’t recall one message that spoke to me, or one time I felt church connecting with the things God was teaching me. When I went to church, it felt like looking at fish in an aquarium: I watched and admired (and was occasionally horrified), but I didn’t get in and swim.

This was painful, especially as someone who grew up learning that church attendance is essential for the Christian life. But it was important, because it taught me something: while church is truly vital for the Christian life, because without a body we do eventually die, God’s work is not dependent on other people. The Holy Spirit can change and transform when we are most raw, most isolated, most fearful. In fact, I would venture to say He does His best work in those times.

Little by little, month by month, I felt feeling return to the numbness. I remember being at church one Sunday morning, in that same storm of heads and arms and music and light, standing in my favorite spot between my husband and best friend, and singing to a worship song for the first time in months. I remember my voice cracking a little. I remember starting to cry.

And little by little, month by month, my guard went down. I began to trust this trendy suburban church, because I realized that the Spirit of God was at work there, and the word of God was held in the highest esteem, and that those are the only things we should ever worry about. Little by little, month by month, I began to feel belonging in church again.

There’s a lot of talk about the modern church. Many people are worried, because the church of the new millennium has an increased focus on accessibility and acceptance, simplicity and diversity. Many people see this as a departure from the true faith. But I no longer see it that way. To me, the modern church is a return to the roots of the faith. The church is starting to strip itself of its once-shiny trappings that made it more of an institution than a family. We are rediscovering the spirit of the law as we throw away its wretched letters one by one.

So when I hear some Christians lament about the new generation, my generation, and how we’re compromising the faith with our laziness and lack of piety, I have to disagree. Anyone who thinks the church is on the decline hasn’t been paying attention. I’m truly looking forward to where the church will be in thirty years, because the heart of modern Christianity is one of earnestness, of a deep desire to connect with God. And let us not forget that the faith needs very little upkeep to stay true, because Christianity isn’t dependent on us to keep it alive. Its life force, its soul, is in God, and he’s really good at sustaining truth. The Holy Spirit is alive and well.

Now when I go to church, I stand in the sea of heads and arms under clouds of light and music, and I remember that this is what heaven will be like. And unlike in the past, when I felt detached, set apart, observing, I now feel at home. I am part of the sea and part of the clouds, no longer raw, but strong.

And I feel sometimes, in those little scraps of moments, that heaven has come early.

I Will Love Winter

Almost a year ago I wrote a post called “How to Survive Winter (in Eleven Easy Steps)“. While I appreciate the sentiment in which I wrote it, I feel I’ve matured in a year, and now I am ready to tackle the monumental task of actually loving winter.

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As a kid, I loved the cold, ice, and snow of Western PA’s longest season. My winter memories are filled with snow forts and snow men, pine trees, hot cocoa and bundling up on the couch to watch Peter Rabbit. These memories have left me with a deep-seated affinity for late-90s long wool coats and fluffy hats.

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(My oldest friend and I, before any consciousness of fashion.)

Unfortunately, I’m an adult now, which means I can drive. Winter’s no fun at all when you have to drive in it. I also have a tendency to be glum when the weather’s glum. So last year’s goal to simply survive winter was an attempt to not give into seasonal despair.

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But why should half the year serve as fodder for grumpiness? Why should we automatically kick into survival mode when snow starts to fly? Unfortunately, this is the Pennsylvania way. As a Pennsylvanian, I protest. This is not doing winter justice. It’s not doing nature justice. And, if you’re inclined to take it further, it’s not doing God justice either.

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Winter is beautiful, and yesterday was the perfect winter’s day. The sky was pearly, cloudy baby blue, and the snow fell in thick clumps, blanketing the trees and rooftops. It’s the kind of weather I used to spend watching Peter Rabbit after hours of cold, flushed sled-riding. Winter, I’ve found, in all its icy, cozy, wet and slushy glory, is a part of life. If we ignore or try to simply survive giant chunks of life because we deem them less than ideal, we miss out on the incredible beauty and blessing that can be in them.

Sometimes it’s genuinely, horribly, not fun to go through a winter, whether it be literal or figurative. (find me in March; I’ll be complaining then.) But when we approach our winters with an open mind and a determined heart, we find the beauty in the cold. And at the end we appreciate the season for what it was.

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I came across a Norwegian saying in my winter studies. Norway, as you know, is much colder than Western PA in the winter, but from what I’ve seen the Norwegian people are much less grumpy about it than Pennsylvanians. They say that “there is no bad weather, only bad clothing”. It sounds trite and quirky, but it’s actually an excellent game changer. When we actively prepare for and purpose to enjoy the colder season, we find we can focus on the glittering snow and stark tree branches instead of our wet toes and frozen ears.

The Norwegians (apparently) also value community, and winter means a chance to ski or toboggan and cozily socialize with friends and family. This year I’ve started an (admittedly nerdy) knitting group in my home, and this will keep me and my friends connected while the days are dark and cold.

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(these are not the friends to which I was referring.)

If you’re interested in joining me as I re-learn to love winter, take a look at my Pinterest board (if only to reassure yourself that winter is indeed pretty). If you find something that could contribute to the cause, suggest it to me! Together we will not just survive: we will take joy