I am learning to cook.
One of the rules Cheryl laid down before we came to Wales was that she was only preparing a meal every third night. If we were to eat the other two nights, Nicola and I would have to figure our way around a kitchen. Slowly, clumsily, with growing daring, we're managing.
It's more pleasure than I imagined. There is an artistry to cooking that I've long admired but feared to attempt. A tasty dish from raw ingredients is like a poem from a pile of words, or a sculpture from a lump of clay, or music from a violin, something that in less skilled hands can be wince-inducing, but with a master's touch can evoke heaven.
I haven't made anything yet that would rank as a culinary masterpiece, and I'm almost slavishly bound to recipes (though learning to be adaptive since I can't always get the listed ingredients), but so far I've not food poisoned anyone, or even made them crumple their napkin on their untouched mound of food and push their plate away. Sometimes, they even have seconds.
I've made jambalaya, and pear-pancakes (with homemade syrup), and Cajun haddock, and roasted parsnips tossed in olive oil and fresh garlic, and apple muffins, and a dozen things besides.
It amazes me, cooking: the alchemy of it, the way flour and baking powder and raw eggs – things inedible or unpalatable by themselves – combine to make something tasty and nourishing. Every time I go into the kitchen now, I'm newly excited by the possibilities (please keep this to yourself – I don't want Cheryl finding out and expecting the Wales ruling to apply to Canada).
I think this is how God works. He takes things in our lives that, by themselves, are hard or impossible to swallow. And he mixes them in such a way, and puts them in intense heat for just the right amount of time, that what comes out bears no resemblance to what went in. What goes in can be revolting. What comes out might be delectable. And yet, it wouldn't be this way without all the ingredients, even or especially the ones we'd never consume by themselves.
Are you going through an ordeal right now, or a time of deep loneliness, or the sting of a loss or a failure? On its own, it's disgusting, and hard to swallow. But see what God does with it, what he mixes it with, what fire he refines it with.
It may turn out to be your best meal yet.
My daughter Nicola and I have been on a road trip through Scotland. It is a remarkable country, enfolding a vast range of geography: snowy heights, craggy coastlines, vibrant cities, rolling farmland, white beaches and turquoise water to rival the Caribbean (until you put your toe in: that rivals the Arctic). From the desolate beauty of the Island of Mull, to the sacred stillness of Iona, to the Mediterranean-like charm of Oban, to the haunting remoteness of Loch Ness, to the fable-like medievalness of Stirling, to the artistic hum of Edinburgh, to the commercial pulse of Glasgow, the journey’s been memorable from start to finish.
We’ve stayed in Youth Hostels the whole way, ranging from the gothic to the rustic to the exotic (for a hostel, at least). Night to night, we’ve not known what’s awaited us until we’ve arrived, which has been half the fun. Tonight, I write this in a Victorian-era apartment building perched above the city of Glasgow, in what must have once been a dining hall – marble pillars! A chandelier! – but now is a scruffy lounge for travel-worn wanderers.
This week’s been a great adventure. But the best part, by far, has been spending the time with my daughter. Nicola and I have together driven hundreds of miles, walked dozens of them, talked a blue streak, laughed about things that aren’t even funny, and endured each other’s strange sleeping habits – I snore, she takes forever to wake up. We’ve eaten in bistros and cafes (including one J.K. Rowling frequented in her slumming-it days) and pubs and parking lots and dingy hostel mess halls.
I’ve relished every minute of it.
If there’s one regret I have as a parent (how I wish there was only one), it’s that I was too busy for long stretches of my children’s growing up years to have been fully present for them. I never made enough snow men, never played enough hide-and-seek, never read enough Dr. Seuss. I always thought there’d be time for that next week, or the one after that. But it all flew by with blurring swiftness. And then, with one child and then another, it was gone. Soon, Nicola too will say goodbye and not come back.
But that’s not yet. And in the meantime, we’ve had this magical week together.
For me, it was supposed to be about discovering my ethnic roots, reconnecting with my Scottish heritage, exploring the land of my forebears. I guess it’s been all that. I still have no idea if I’m from a line of illiterate peasants or glittering noblemen.
But I don’t care. The week’s really been about being with Nicola. That’s been so rich, I may as well be descended from kings.
We're off to Scotland this week. Both Cheryl's and my forbears hail from this lonely country of wild men and skinflints, and more than a few fiery preachers. When we came here for a week in 2010 it was a spiritual homecoming. This time, over the next 10 days, Nicola and I are doing a road trip. It will take us west from Glasgow across the Isle on Mull to the tiny remote island of Iona, then back east and north to the forlorn shores of Loch Ness, then due south to the medieval quaintness of Edinburgh, then west again, through the imposing grandeur of Stirling Castle back to the industrial grubbiness of Glasgow, where the Buchanans once held some kind of sway, at least to have the main street and city square named after them. I hope to bring back a leather journal with Celtic embossing, a scale off Nessy's back, an autograph from William Wallace, and a kilt, so I can start dressing proper for the pulpit.
But the greater adventure, I suspect, will be all Cheryl's. We're leaving her for a week in the austerity of Iona, at the Abbey which has stood since the 13th century, and where a Christian community of monks has existed since the 5th. She is signed up for a 7-day prayer retreat. While Nic and I are off taming ancient serpents or figuring out how to snitch the Stone of Scone and reassert Scottish sovereignty, Cheryl will be on an altogether different journey, higher up, further in.
Iona is a thin place. That's a term Celtic Christians use to describe places where the barrier between earth and heaven is only gossamer, not the brick wall or iron gate it usually is. In a thin place, God is louder, closer. You can hear his voice. You can feel his breath. You can sometimes see his eyes. Story after story of such places (we are staying about an hour from one, Ffald-y-Brenin) recount how saints become more saintly in them, and hardened sinners fall to their faces in reverence and repentance. They're places of healing and restoration and revelation.
I don't fully understand them. I guess that's the point. God doesn't work by formulas. These places are crucibles of divine mystery, where God, by his own counsel, has chosen to tip his hand. Still, the one thing all thin places have in common is they're prayer-soaked. Every one is birthed in a movement of intercession and sustained by a living heritage of prayer. Every one represents decades, sometimes centuries, of men and women faithfully seeking the face of God, in season and out.
I've been in churches sometimes that, if not thin places, are thinner: a wall of balsam, not bricks, separates heaven from earth. Even thinner places are breathtaking.
Maybe the greater mystery is not how they work but this: If prayer is the only thing we can bring to the making of thin places, why aren't we soaking more ground with it?
A book I read recently confirmed for me a growing hunch: that all the information the internet puts instantly at our disposal is making us stupider. All those arcane things it once took a sleuth or a scholar or an archaeologists to scare up – the whereabouts of some long-faded starlet, the distance from one edge of the Andromeda galaxy to the other, the ancient alchemist's potion for transmuting base metal to gold, or whatever – is just a key-stroke away. Google is the new Oracle of Delphi, at none of the cost. Wikipedia is our generation's guru on the mountaintop, only you can get there and back in the time it takes to sip your coffee.
The internet makes us all know-it-alls. Instant experts. It is an ocean of knowledge distilled at the tap of a mouse. No longer does one need to invest the slow labor of painstaking study. No longer must one accumulate a body of knowledge from books and lectures, from travels and long meandering conversations: you can conjure it all up as fast as you can think it up. Imagine a question, any question, and your search engine starts offering answers before you've even typed the whole thing in.
But there's a downside. An obvious one is that we now know many things but none of them well. All the deep and intricate connective tissue between bits of knowledge is missing. Our heads become as dishevelled as the drawer you have in your kitchen, cluttered with everything from cake candles to glue sticks to keys for cars you no longer own, to that pair of 3-D glasses you forgot to throw in the bin as you exited the theatre. There's no organizing principle to any of it, no coherence. It's random.
But it's worse than that. The internet is playing havoc with our brains. It is altering the way we think.
It's messing with our heads.
Oh, the book – I almost forgot. It's called The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, by Nicholas Carr. Carr documents at great length recent studies in neurology – the science of how the brain works – that show conclusively that prolonged exposure to the internet erodes our capacity for what he calls deep thinking. In a word, we lose the point. We distract easily. We have little patience or ability to follow an argument much past its first turn. The internet is making us more alert but less attentive. We're becoming like skittish hares or does, quick to pick up on every last little thing, every noise and motion, but slow to stare long and hard at any one thing. And we forget information as fast we gather it.
Reading Carr's books, his descriptions of our jittery addiction to the cyberworld and our diminishing capacity to actually read and talk, was like looking in the mirror. That's me, I kept thinking.
And then I'd check my email.
I read the book a month ago, when I first landed here in Wales. When I read it, I was a case in point: it was hard for me to stick with Carr's complex argument, to wade through his long chapters, to sift through his reams of data. But after a month in a secluded valley, and reading more than a dozen books in that time, and with a testy and pokey internet connection that has seriously curbed my appetite for being online, there is growing room inside my head, and growing order.
One of the distinctions Carr makes repeatedly is between attentiveness and alertness. Alertness is a heightened state of distraction: everything pulls us. Attentiveness is a deepened state of focus: one thing holds us.
God gave us the capacity for both, and both have their uses. But worship and the pursuit of holiness calls for the latter. These things require sustained attentiveness. They demand a long obedience in the same direction.
That's worth turning the internet off for.