When I was a little girl, I spent at least one night a week at my grandparents’ house. They lived in my school district, so I could ride the bus right to their house and run across the wide, grassy lawn to the open door. Inside, GramBea was in the kitchen, already filling a baggie with raisins and apple slices for my snack. I played outside while she worked on dinner and practiced her piano on the 4-season porch.
When I came back in around dinnertime, I sat at the pretty drop-leaf table in the kitchen and watched GramBea stir a knob of butter into a pot of brown rice, then peer into the oven to see if the chicken was done. Now and then, she stood still and listened to whatever news Tom Brokaw was delivering from the tiny television next to the stove, nodding a little or snorting in disgust. Dinner, when it was served, asked nothing of me. Everything GramBea fed me was familiar, nourishing, and somehow more than the sum of its parts.
If I was lucky and the weather had been cool enough to keep the oven on all day, dessert was rice pudding –served cold in a white tulip bowl. Rice pudding is still my ultimate comfort food. It has only six ingredients: milk, rice, sugar, vanilla, nutmeg, and a pinch of salt. The technique, too, is simple — mix everything together in a deep casserole dish and stick it in the oven for roughly three hours, stirring every once in a while until you think it’s done. It couldn’t be easier, but it’s like any ritual: you have to give it careful, sacred attention to do it justice. You can’t merely spend three hours making rice pudding … you have to devote three hours to making rice pudding. That distinction took me a long time to understand, but I get it now. I am the only grandchild who really loved it, so when GramBea made rice pudding — stirring every 30 minutes for the first couple of hours, then after another 20, then maybe 15, then two 10-minute intervals at the end– she was giving me more than just her time. There was something else in there, too. Devotion.
I want to give my life some careful, sacred attention and do it justice.
A couple of months ago, I bought a little daybook and began keeping a daily log of my activities. One of the reasons for this new habit was to shame myself into being more productive. Once I had been forced to write “8:00-noon: Facebook and whatever” a few times, I picked up my knitting needles again and put myself on a strict cooking and baking schedule.
The other reason, the more important reason I began keeping a record of what I do each day, was to make sure my days are at least partially made up of meaningful work and activities that reflect who I really am (or at least who I’m trying to be). I want to give my life some careful, sacred attention and do it justice.
Annie Dillard says, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”
That isn’t great news for those of us who spend our days in minivans with bickering children. Anyway, I only mostly agree with it. On most days, I spend my time: I get my stuff done, I keep my promises, I enjoy myself or I don’t. I suppose you could say that’s also how I spend my life. But there are also days — or at least parts of days– I devote: to nurturing, comfort, protection, love, community, and everything else that matters to me. So that means my life is made up of that devotion, too.
For time to be devoted, not merely spent, I have to give each moment more than just my attention — more, even, than my full attention. The time I devote becomes more than a commodity, more than something that can be spent. Time devoted is me offering my best available self to a broken corner of the world I can reach: does someone need to be fed? Comforted? Protected? Loved? I am here. I give myself to that need in this moment.
The time I devote becomes more than a commodity, more than something that can be spent. Time devoted is me offering my best available self to a broken corner of the world I can reach …
I wish there were a widely accepted formula for how to balance Time Spent with Time Devoted, but even if there were, I wouldn’t be able or willing to apply it. Sometimes I approach what I’m doing with the deepest reverence but then can’t sustain it; sometimes my work doesn’t turn out to be worthy of my devotion; sometimes I run to the grocery store, intending to pick up a couple of things for lunches or a rotisserie chicken for dinner, and wind up buying the ingredients for rice pudding. I’m surprised by devotion as often as I plan it, so intention isn’t always what distinguishes one kind of time from the other. I intended to spend last weekend relaxing with my family after a rather shaky start to the school year, but wound up devoting most of my time and myself to supporting a family I have never met, who just lost their little girl. I think part of devotion is reception; if I’m asking the questions about who needs me, then I have to be willing to hear the answers above the roar of my own plans.
And part of devotion is discernment. I can’t give everything I have to everything I do … if everything is sacred, then nothing is. On most days, I will spend my time: I will get my stuff done, keep my promises, and enjoy myself or not. But on some days I will pour milk, rice, sugar, and vanilla into a deep casserole dish and add a pinch of salt, grate nutmeg over the top. I will put it in the oven, stir all afternoon, devote my best self to it, feed it to any broken corner of the world I can reach until it becomes more than the sum of its parts. Until my life becomes more than the sum of its parts.
GramBea’s RICE PUDDING
2 quarts milk (2% is best in my opinion, but of course you could make it with 1% or whole; I wouldn’t use skim)
½ cup long-grain white rice
½ cup sugar
1 ½ teaspoons vanilla bean paste or pure vanilla extract
pinch of salt
freshly grated nutmeg
Preheat oven to 325˚F. In a deep 2-qt casserole, combine first five ingredients, then grate nutmeg on top. Bake at 325˚F for about an hour and a half, stirring with a wooden spoon every half an hour. Then turn oven up to 350˚F and bake until pudding thickens to desired consistency, stirring every 10-15 minutes. Cooking time should be between 2 ½ and 3 hours.
Cool pudding to room temperature and then chill it in the refrigerator, at least 2 hours or overnight.
GramBea served it plain, but I add fresh bananas and whipped cream 😉