As children, we are told, you can be anything you want. Perhaps a ballerina, a fireman, a chef, a rock star, the president. We all want to make our mark. We all dream big.
But there is something to be said for the discipline of admiration.
It doesn’t pay well. It isn’t a lofty vocation. But it feeds a part of our soul which requires a steady diet of beauty, of transcendence, of a view outside ourselves.
I am an excellent admirer. Were it actually a career, I’d be an expert, a guru. Perhaps I’d teach classes on appreciation and the lost art of admiration.
Words as Worlds
I admire words. I devour well-written prose, savoring an imaginative analogy, sucking on the words until their flavor finally lessens. I reread passages, noting their complexity and subtext.
As a writer myself, I knew the author is speaking to me in code, writing simple words which multiply, divide, expand, and transform when processed through my own filters and sensibilities. My translation is not the same as yours. The story, written in multiple drafts, printed and distributed once, is decoded in a million multitudes. Even upon rereading, my new self translates in a new dialect.
The written word is to be admired. Words do not lose impact when distilled down to bytes and pixels or simple handwriting, nor is it improved by fancy fonts, billboard lighting, or a best seller status. Words simply are.
Truth and story and the immortality of words are sustenance to a hungry soul. A diet of words must be consumed to fill the brain with more than the small, single view point we are each limited by.
You only need to consider the word word. W-o-r-d. Four letters, missing only letter l to create world. Words build worlds, deconstruct worlds, define worlds, and expand worlds. Words are worlds.
Food as an Experience
Food is also to be admired. First, there is the study of textures: a tangy schmear of goat cheese on an unevenly toasted swath of bread, the crisp bite of an apple easing into a contrast of pliable cheddar, the firm dente of pine nuts mixed with soften pasta. Robust smells offer tantalizing promises—sizzling garlic mingling with the fresh scent of cooking celery, the snap of cream and burnt sugar transforming into caramel, the universal smell of baking bread.
Yet food is always about the taste. I understand why spice traders traversed the globe. If first introduced to such luxuries as cardamom, ginger, sea salt, and cayenne, I would chase after them too. Food can transform, be transformed. Balsamic vinegar, a good olive oil, a dash of basil slices, a drizzle of melted chocolate—these all elevate food to decadence.
Food is a requirement. We must eat to live. But the intake of food can be so much more. It can be communion, a peace offering, a promise. Just as writing speaks to the individual, so does food. I can’t taste food in the same way as you do. We each bring our unique taste buds and past experiences to the table.
But it is the appreciation of the food which makes a meal more than mere calories. I cook for my family and friends to fill their caloric requirements but also to fill their need for community and for the fusion of tastes, smells, and memories. I want to teach my children to notice the sun-warmed skin of a Roma tomato, the delicate layering of phyllo dough in baklava, and the specific tongue texture of chocolate.
The same noticing can be done in any of the art disciplines: music, theater, photography, art, fashion, conversation, and conflict.
Noticing and admiring removes nothing from the art, it can only enhance it. Admiring magnifies.
I admit I would love to be the writer of a great, universal novel rather than the admirer. I would love to feed a restaurant full of people, splitting my time between effusive praise and gentle sautéing. I can envision a deep curtsied bow to thunderous applause—for either a stirring performance or a soft lullaby. But these are internal urges: the need for recognition for self, rather than recognition for the art.
And perhaps, someday I will create something wonderful, something worth of admiration. But until then, I will admire. I will look outside myself. I will read the words set out for me by a lonely, determined writer. I will savor food prepared by the skilled and the student. I will listen to music that moves me, left, right, up, down, and inward. I will practice admiration and expect magnification—which seems a lot like the word magnificent.
This weekend is my 20th class reunion in Michigan. As the resident writer of our tiny class, I was asked to write the foreword to our reunion book. These were my thoughts:
At the Starting Gate
In the two short decades we have been out of high school, even class reunions have changed. Many mini reunions happen every minute on Facebook and across the internet. We don’t have to wait for chance encounters or an annual Christmas card to keep up-to-date with old friends. Long lost friends are only a click away.
Sadly, traditional class reunions are best known for offering up the chance to measure ourselves against others. Since we all had the same starting gate, those who are further along the path are surely winning.
In high school, we measured success by grades, future plans and ambition. None of us planned to stumble, trip or fail. Divorce and job loss happened to other people. Money woes wouldn’t dare to visit our doorstep and health concerns were for old people. Success was a breath away.
Now, with our own stumbles, it is easy—and natural—to grab a score card and start tallying before the first drink at the reunion is poured. We shared a starting gate—it’s only logical to expect the same finish line.
We think if she has more (or less) kids than me or if he has a better car and bigger paycheck, then they must be in the lead. If she can still wear a miniskirt (fashionable or not) and he still has all of his hair, they must be winning.
But in truth, we are not all striving for the same end goal. Even in our tiny class, we have city dwellers and country folks. We have worldwide travelers and homebodies. We have business people, the self-employed, teachers, factory workers, homemakers and students of life. For some, the ideal family size is 2.2 children—but others prefer five or more and yet others desire none. We have cat lovers, dog lovers and even oxen lovers.
None of us are going to die with equal checking account balances or the same list of accomplishments. We are not all on identical paths anymore. One classmate’s road may veer left while another’s course circles back before angling right.
It is futile to compare dress sizes, social status or bank accounts. The currency is no longer sameness—but contentment.
Small, Sweet Things
Life hasn’t always been as we expected.
We had grandiose plans in high school and no reason to believe that we couldn’t achieve each and every one. The future wavered before us in a golden haze.
Some of us have been visited by true tragedy. We have lost parents, children, jobs, faith and sometimes hope. Others have been ground down by small things like gritty sandpaper.
Even those of us who would categorize the glass as overflowing have had our moments of surreal disbelief, questioning our paths.
Am I heading in the right direction? Is any of this worthwhile? Why do other people seem to have it so much easier?
We work—some in careers meticulously planned out while others in jobs we stumbled into or merely tolerate. Others still are searching—in a dismal job market that stands in stark contrast to the decadent 90s.
Many have found themselves in school halls again—a new adventure with creakier bones. Some live vicariously through their students or through their children.
Each milestone we pass—graduation, college degree, new job, new baby, school vacations, new grandbabies—each one makes us think we should be racing against someone. We compare our intimate, messy interiors with the glossy façade of others.
Twenty years ago, we left the halls of Union City High School cocky, arrogant and confident—a golden path at our feet. Now—marinated in the daily-ness of life—few of us feel the siren’s call of the BIG things in life.
Instead we have learned to relish the small, sweet things:
- A good book
- The smell of water on tomato plants
- A household project checked off the Honey-Do list
- Dinner out on pay day
- Hand addressed “real” mail
- Fall nights with football echoing in the distance
- Summer rains that scrub away the humidity
- Family get-togethers when everyone gets along (!!!)
- Warm towels
- A hug that squeezes the breath from you
- Answered prayers
- Firefly glitter in a corn field
- A clean car and a full tank of gas
- All the laundry done, folded and put away
- Riots of color in the spring
- Fresh downy snow disguising the landscape in winter
- Date nights
- A shoulder to cry on
- A balanced checkbook
- Hammocks in the breeze
- The smell of burning leaves
- Friends who knew us 20 years ago and still want to know us 20 years later
Class reunions aren’t about comparing and measuring ourselves against one another. It’s about remembering that first starting line where we all stood together over 20 years ago—and discovering what finish line each of us have chosen for ourselves now.