Solitude: a silent storm that breaks down all our dead branches, yet sends our living roots deeper into the living heart of the living earth.
~ Khalil Gibran, Sand and Foam
The virus still lurks, despite the fact that statistics suggest fewer new cases are showing up. So I am still crossing off the days on my calendar, uncertain as to when life might return to normal. In the meantime, imagination takes flight.
Sunshine makes a huge difference. My spirit tends to be lighter on sunny days, when the early morning brightness from the window dapples across the floor, reminding me of a forest path in Virginia.
And there’s lots of sunshine here – usually – after all, Florida IS tagged as the “Sunshine State” after all.
But when the Zillow alert popped up in my email, and the craggy mountains behind Tucson, Arizona loomed outside the windows in the featured condo, I daydreamed like I haven’t since I was ten years old. When my daydreams took the form of visualizing myself some place, any place, far from where I was.
And this condo-inspired daydream was no different. Even though there’s plenty of sunshine here right now.
Once upon a time, I spent a month in Tucson. I absolutely loved it. And the sunshine, well, that’s in ample supply, too.
Yet, there’s something beyond the sunshine that entices.
What is it about the desert? Why does the desert call to humans, drawing them to what appears to be nothing but barrenness ? Scant water, few trees, dust storms so bad that highway signs warn motorists on what to do when caught in a blinding swirl of sand and dirt.
I can’t answer for others, but for me there’s something about the minimalism of the desert, the grains of sand that make up the whole, I guess, how they all come together into one. And the sheer tenacity of life there, hanging on by profound adaptions to the harsh environment. Then there’s the hint of the hermit tradition, I realize, and that offers me a bit of solace in these very trying times.
The tradition of hermits, essentially lost in modern culture, provides guidance to us, now driven into becoming hermits not by choice, but by necessity. The tradition is still alive, but not widely practiced, except by those deemed strange by people driven by society’s norms. The Desert Fathers (and Desert Mothers) come to mind. Of course, traces of hermitage can be found in most religious traditions. Some might point to Henry David Thoreau as an example of a hermit, but he really wasn’t, according to Danny Heitman:
Despite his fame as a champion of solitude—a practice that he chronicled with wisdom and wit, Thoreau made no secret of the social life he indulged during his stay at Walden Pond from 1845 to 1847. In fact, one of the chapters of Walden, titled “Visitors,” offers an extended account of Thoreau’s dealings with others. “I think that I love society as much as most, and am ready enough to fasten myself like a blood- sucker for the time to any full-blooded man that comes in my way,” Thoreau tells readers. “I am naturally no hermit, but might possibly sit out the sturdiest frequenter of the bar- room, if my business called me thither.”
Another practitioner of the hermit’s life was the Trappist monk, Thomas Merton. But, in common with Thoreau, he walked out among people quite often. Not quite the hermit of his imagination. Nor of others’.
Merton notes that the desert hermits never spoke of this quies, never distinguished it from their way of life. They did not theorize, philosophize, or theologize. “In many respects, therefore,” declares Merton rightly, “these Desert Fathers had much in common with Indian Yogis and with Zen Buddhist monks of China and Japan.” ~ Hermitary
The sky is wide and the horizon looms on forever. Or so it seems. Like the writer Edward Abbey, I feel eternity and infinity and the forever in the desert:
Standing there, gaping at this monstrous and inhuman spectacle of rock and cloud and sky and space, I feel a ridiculous greed and possessiveness come over me. I want to know it all, possess it all, embrace the entire scene intimately, deeply, totally, as a man desires a beautiful woman. An insane wish? Perhaps not — at least there’s nothing else, no one human, to dispute possession with me. ~ Desert Solitaire
Of course, I’m not really a hermit these days, but in my enforced solitude, there are lessons to be found there in those people’s lives, wisdom in fact, giving me perspective on what it is to be human in the face of solitude, aloneness.
And so I retreat to the kitchen, where for all practical purposes I am a hermit, the only one who cooks in my house. I’ll confess to the strain and worry of cooking now. Should I use my flour? Dare I crack more than three eggs for an omelette? Two dozen organic eggs, the last of the lot, grabbed during my last in-person visit to the grocery, still sat in my refrigerator. I cracked five, grated two Russet potatoes, chopped a bit of sliced deli Black Forest ham, sautéed the remains of sweet onion from a previous night’s onion ring extravaganza, grated some odds and ends of cheese, and came up with “Last-Minute Frittata”.
There’s an interesting group on Facebook, “KitchenQuarantine“, now boasting over 6000 members, all trying to stay sane and functional by cooking. It’s fun to see what other people cook, or try to cook, in these times of “plague”. Few recipes appear, as the point is to – mostly – share idea and tips and lots of photos.
While none of the recipes serves to prevent the virus or to cure it, they represent something important, however: the ages-old undissolvable connection between food and health and good cheer.
Many present-day food combinations originated as practices thought to be healthful, maintaining bodily balance, thus ensuring smooth functioning of the body and mind. Fish tempered with acid, lemon or vinegar or verjus, comes to mind. “Medicine and cuisine are siblings!” underlay much medicinal thought.
Dating to the days of Hippocrates and Galen, both of whom no doubt influenced the tenth-century Persian writer Avicenna―the humoral theory of diet and health prevailed for centuries. Medicinal and culinary practices relied upon a complicated series of rules and interrelationships based on four bodily fluids. Blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile intertwined and dictated what could be eaten or avoided. Adherence to this system slowly waned after Andreas Vesalius published De Humani Corporis Fabrica in 1543. By 1628, when William Harvey’s De Motu Cordis appeared, humoralism receded into the background, remnants of it appearing in some folkloric beliefs and in certain food combinations.
The humoral system followed no logical pattern, at least not by modern scientific standards. Cooks and physicians paid a great deal of attention to states of heat and moisture in the body. They believed that if certain characteristics―or humors―were out of balance, your health suffered. By eating certain foods, or avoiding them, depending upon your inherent nature, wellness and balance could be achieved. In other words, “A good physician must be a good cook.”
Good health, yes, preoccupied people then as much as now.
Lately, some writers have rediscovered a certain elixir – Plague Water.
A name given to a variety of medicinal waters of supposed efficacy against the plague. Most commonly it was a distillation of various herbs and roots that were believed to be efficacious. The recipe given by E. Smith in The Compleat Housewife, or, Accomplish’d Gentlewoman’s Companion (1627) was typical in that it contained no less than 22 herbal products, both leaves and roots, all steeped in WHITE WINE and BRANDY and then distilled. Samuel Pepys was given a bottle of plague water during the outbreak of the plague in London in 1665 [Diaries (Pepys)].
The Oxford English Dictionary suggests that the first use of the term occurred in 1655.
Here’s a recipe, which is unlikely to be of much use to we moderns:
To make Plague-water (from The Closet Of the Eminently Learned Sir Kenelme Digby, Knight. Opened, 1677)
Take a pound of Rue, of Rosemary, Sage, Sorrel, Celandine, Mugwort, of the tops of red Brambles, of Pimpernel, Wild-draggons, Arimony, Balm, Angelica, of each a pound. Put these Compounds in a pot, fill it with White-wine above the herbs, so let it stand four days. Then still it for your use in a Limbeck.
• 1 ounce Green Chartreuse (substitute for Plague Water)
• ½ ounce Becherovka (substitute for Aqua Mirabilis)
• ½ ounce pineapple juice
• ¼ ounce honey sage syrup
• ¼ ounce lemon juice
Honey Sage Syrup: In a saucepan, add 1 cup honey, 1 cup water, and 1 tablespoon fresh sage roughly chopped. Cook on medium, stirring until simmering. Reduce heat and simmer five minutes. Cool and strain.
Combine Honey Sage Syrup and remaining ingredients with ice. Shake. Strain. Pour in coupe glass. Garnish with lime wheel.
As for me, since I have none of those ingredients on hand, I tend to reach for beer. But nonetheless, on Day 24, I managed cook up one old zucchini and two pork chops, cut into strips and stewed in a pesto-tomato sauce. Leftover risotto with cauliflower.
For more on historic recipes and how to cook from them, take a look at my award-winning book:
Stay safe. Stay well. And stay home, if you can.