At Hanukah we learn courage from Judah and his brave band of Maccabees, who– powered by a mysterious, miraculous force which also kept their oil burning for eight days rather than its predicted one– defeated the fierce army of Antiochus. At Christmas, Mary, Joseph and Jesus teach us love, peace and good will. And if we see life as a school, we learn from everything. My professor, Will Callender, awakened me to this idea: every moment is an opportunity. He ignited in me the flame of life-long learning. Will asked, “What’s your current learning project? No failure: only learning.”
My Dad, too, taught me about living with wonder and surprise. In his eighties, he lit up with a passion for cooking. Weeks before his death at 86, I drove him to Hannaford to buy Marshmallow Fluff for a baking experiment. As he pushed the squeaky cart which propped up his shaky body, his eyes scanned the store. He noticed tiny stars on shelves under the groceries, some with one star , some with two or three, some with none. He asked, “What are these?”
I explained the Guiding Stars nutrition rating system and he said, “Wow! It’s important to learn at least one new thing a day. Thanks.”
He’d drive to my house to play in the kitchen. His surgeon’s hands chopped zucchini, every piece the same size and shape. “Sharp knives are safer than dull ones,” he’d wink. He’d stack the green and white vegetable pieces just so, “to get even cuts.”
He watched TV cooking shows, downloaded and printed their recipes, and sorted them in a bulging 3-ring binder with sections he’d labeled, “meals, pies, cookies, candy.” He beamed as he showed me his organization and snapped his collection shut. “See?”
I giggled, “Dad, where are the salads?”
He punched my shoulder, “I haven’t gotten there yet.”
One day he arrived with a new candy thermometer, which he didn’t know how to use. No matter. Out of his front pocket , he presented crumpled yellowed slips of paper with his mother’s hand-written recipes for pecan pralines and chocolate peanut butter cups. Amid the mixer’s buzz and the blender’s whirr, for hours we created what my professional pastry-chef son calls “unique sweets”. Like a miraculous Maccabean power, some mysterious flow of life-force energized his weak legs. I kept asking, “Do you want to sit down?”
“No,” he insisted. “I’m OK. This is fun.”
In a double boiler, we melted a silky chocolate concoction which never tempered, “whatever that means,” he shrugged.
He hugged me as he left and said, “I’ll call you as soon as I figure out what we did wrong with the chocolate. We threw too many nuts in it, for one thing.”
My phone rang twenty minutes later. He reported, “I’m reading Fanny Farmer. It says to add shortening. I couldn’t wait to look it up. I’ll bring a whisk next time.”
There was no next time.
Architect Mies van der Rohe wrote that “God is in the details.” Then my Dad —his able hands, his sparkly smile, the chocolate meltdown, the one-inch cubes of zucchini, his collection of overstuffed learning-project notebooks–is a teacher who expands how I experience the Holy.
Now Will Callender has written a book, “Abdication,” in which he says, “In this one and only life, be sure to enjoy every moment of it. Fill it with pleasure and love. Let life on earth be experienced as a garden for divine spirits….”
This holiday season, may we remember those teachers who show us how.