With winter coming on, it’s time I gave a report about a book I read on my Kindle, under my wool blankets last winter: The Year of Living Danishly: Uncovering the Secrets of the World’s Happiest Country by Helen Russell. Why did I choose this book in the first place? It had something to do with the erratic and perplexing workings of my mind in that first year of widowhood, combined with the popularity of the concept of hygge and the instantaneous nature of Kindle shopping.
Once I began, an unhealthy curiosity took hold and overcame my better impulses; I wanted to find out if the author decided to stay a second year. I also hoped she might reveal moral principles in herself, or a change of attitude, or anything to show that she was more than an unemployed journalist using the Danish experience to make a buck.
Russell’s husband had been offered a job with LEGO, and after some deliberating about leaving her job and mother behind in Britain, they decided to try it for a year. Why not, when it’s known to be the happiest country in the world! During the year that they live there, she writes about various aspects of Danish life, and gives the reader tons of statistics (which I didn’t check) from various research studies not specifically about Denmark, to show that maybe the Danes are on to something. She does not hide statistics about the sky-high divorce rate, the highest anti-depressant use in Europe, high suicide rate, how people change jobs frequently (certainly not because they are unhappy at work), but the many people she asks personally always say that their happiness level is either 9 or 10.
What bothered me was how the author didn’t appear to like the Danish people, her new neighbors and friends. She uses them as humorous subject matter for her book, but if she likes living in Denmark, it doesn’t appear to be out of appreciation for the natives. Also, I kept waiting for her to show that she held to principles against which to assess the culture, but by example, she quickly got over an initial concern over the way Danes casually expose children to pornography, and seems to easily absorb whatever socialist values are expedient, in trade for living in a welfare state with free everything.
It may be that Russell is only trying to maintain an objective stance as a journalist; when she lacks her own ideas, she finds some statistics to throw out there. We are told about the Danes, “They cherish their freedom to indulge every whim,” and they “really enjoy themselves, safe in the knowledge that they’ll be looked after if (or rather, when) anything goes wrong.” This is important, because “women here have the highest rates of lung cancer in the world, and Denmark also tops the overall worldwide cancer charts for all types of cancer in both sexes.” Related statements are about how they are “among the highest drinkers in Europe,” and “smoke with zeal.” She also lets us know, using language I find oddly travelogue-ish, that Denmark is the “top spot for STI’s [a.k.a. STD’s] in Europe.”
She’s less non-committal about the many more wholesome customs she learns about. When a neighbor tells her about the importance of church confirmations, saying, “It’s tradition!” she calls the concept “That old chestnut.” One belief I’m sure was inculcated before she ever left the U.K. is “…sometimes the practice of religion goes against human rights, for instance in the case of abortion.” That she doesn’t say whose human rights she is thinking of, we must chalk up to her not being in the habit of thinking outside the box that the typical journalist these days is ensconced in, and not even being aware of her bias. She states in several places her assessment that religion doesn’t really mean much to most Danes, but if it is “going against” something in the popular culture, I am encouraged.
As to hygge, Russell does try to learn to slow down, to burn candles and eat pastries in the winter as she’s told to do, and she credits this more relaxed life with ending her infertility. Though it means that the grandmother will be across the sea, the couple do decide to stay another year.
I can’t help wondering if her new friends read her book, and how they felt about it. Maybe they don’t like to be the targets for her sarcasm… but probably she is a good neighbor in real life and they forgive her for not treating them as more than superficial-sounding book characters. I don’t like to think about the possibility that the author and her subjects truly have been reduced to mere contented, or sated, consumers; but when I factor in all those alarming statistics, the image I get of what people are doing on those long winter nights is not inspiring.
This winter, I will be glad not to live in a frigid place like Jutland. I will work on my own style of being cozy at home, and it will no doubt include the reading of many books. But reading this one hasn’t made me want to pursue anything Danish, and it has done nothing at all for my hygge.
“What Was Said to the Rose” is a poem by Rumi, the Sufi mystic. I listened to it along with several others on a recording played through my car’s stereo on my drive up to daughter Pippin’s house last month.
For the first hour or more I didn’t listen to anything. I am surprised to find that I like just looking at the scenery in our beautiful state. I live in Northern California, and so does Pippin. But she is five hours farther north than I am, and still not at the top of the state.
Some people who have never been here imagine the cities of Los Angeles and San Francisco and have no idea that there is anything north of the latter. But if you’ve read my blog very long you know that there is a wide realm of land to love, and every time I drive through it I love it more.
It is said that Rumi is the most popular poet in the United States. I have one book of his poems, which I rarely crack, and I heard a recording of the translator Coleman Barks reading Rumi a few years back. I enjoy Barks’s personality and southern drawl almost as much as Rumi’s poems. You can hear him reading this poem on a YouTube recording;I think it might be from the same event I was listening to.
Rumi was a Persian Muslim mystic in the 13th century. It seems that the order of whirling dervishes was formed to propagate his poetry and wisdom. He does write as though his meditation and asceticism opened his heart to God, whom he calls “The Beloved” in many poems. The tone of this one is representative of many that I have read, and it inspires praise and joy in me. The version I transcribed here does not have the first line as its title.
WHAT WAS TOLD, THAT
What was said to the rose that made it open
was said to me here in my chest.
What was told the Cypress that made it strong
and straight, what was
whispered the jasmine so it is what it is, whatever made
sugarcane sweet, whatever
was said to the inhabitants of the town of Chigil in
Turkestan that makes them
so handsome, whatever lets the pomegranate flower blush
like a human face, that is
being said to me now. I blush. Whatever put eloquence in
language, that’s happening here.
The great warehouse doors open; I fill with gratitude,
chewing a piece of sugarcane,
in love with the one to whom every that belongs!
–Jalal al-Din Rumi, 1207–1273, translated by Coleman Barks
Perhaps I listened to some music after Rumi. I hope I didn’t jump right into Percy Jackson’s Greek Heroes, which though it references the ancients, is on the opposite side of the literary world from Rumi. I reviewed Rick Riordan’s earlier series a few years ago, about Percy Jackson the demigod and his adventures with the super dysfunctional divine side of his family. I can’t remember much of that one book I read, but when I discovered that the author had more recently retold the original Greek myths (starting with Percy Jackson’s Greek Gods) I thought it would be an even more helpful and fun addition to my haphazard effort to be better educated.
It is more hilarious than the original series. I think that it might also be more entrenched in the middle-school vernacular, including that four-letter “S” word for anything disappointing or bad that is so mainstream now that my own grandchildren are using it in my presence. It’s a sign of the degradation of society, but I guess that fits right in with this collection of stories, because certainly the Greek gods exhibit lots of degraded behavior themselves. Still, it makes me not want to recommend the book to kids.
As I drove up the interstate I could not helping laughing out loud at the lighthearted descriptions of the silly gods and goddesses and the way that Percy tells the drama and draws the characters using modern-day cultural phenomena and slang. Aphrodite sits around reading fashion magazines and looking at herself in the mirror, and various beautiful humans and gods are described as “hot.” The egotism of many of the gods is easily recognized as being like that of some foolish celebrities in the news, or the kids at school who get into trouble, or hurt someone innocent, because of their stupidity and selfishness.
I played a few minutes for Kate the other day and she laughed a lot, too, but she could see why after a couple of hours of these stories I might get tired of them. Is it really necessary to write for such a narrow target audience? How soon will these books sound dated to that age group? I don’t really care that much. The stories are hugely entertaining even for this grandma, and I hope Riordan won’t stop writing for a long time. I don’t know that I will buy a hard copy, though, even though the illustrations are well done.
I turned off my tablet when I got close to Pippin’s house. I drove into the driveway and unloaded my goodies, including an armful of books for the children that I had bought at the thrift store. We read about Ping and Paul Bunyan, and I was glad that these dear hearts aren’t at the age for hearing about Percy and his cohorts yet. They’ll be ready for Rumi sooner.
Several articles I’ve read lately strike me as worth sharing.
Boredom is a topic that comes up a lot, maybe more so in summertime, when some people have more time to be bored. In “The Quiet Alarm” Andreas Elpidorou explains why “Boredom is precious, but there’s nothing particularly good about being bored. Its unpleasantness is no illusion, its subjective character no taste worth acquiring. We should give thanks for it – and avoid it like the plague.”
I’m not sure what I think about all of this; perhaps Boredom is so related to Time that it’s one of those realities that I could muse on for a long time and get more and more confused – but never bored! Read the whole article here.
The threat of boredom comes to mind when I think of cocktail parties, but David Brooks uses them as a metaphor for the exciting “online life” in his article “Building Attention Span”: “Being online is like being a part of the greatest cocktail party ever and it is going on all the time….” He says that “This mode of interaction nurtures mental agility,” or what he calls “fluid intelligence.”
He contrasts that with “crystallized intelligence,” which is what we get more of in offline learning, “…the ability to use experience, knowledge and the products of lifelong education that have been stored in long-term memory.” This kind of learning leads to wisdom, and goodness knows we need that. Read the whole article here.
Fr. Stephen Freeman’s recent article “Why the Orthodox Honor Mary” begins a discussion that continues in the resulting comments, contrasting the humility and submission of Mary as something to recognize and emulate, with the actual veneration of her as an aspect of our worship of God.
A fascinating bit of Bible exposition is in the comments where Fr. Stephen explains Jesus’s words to Mary at the marriage of Cana, and the meaning that becomes clear when you see that they hearken back to the story in I Kings of Elijah and the widow of Zarephath. Read it all here.
To end on a lighter note, how about some coconut cake to have with your iced tea on a summer afternoon? (If you are in the Southern Hemisphere, even better – just make that hot tea.) This picture of Emily Dickinson’s Handwritten Coconut Cake recipe, and the accompanying text, do encourage me that if I get back into the kitchen more, it won’t necessarily mean a lessening of my writing output. I do wonder what the form of the coconut ingredient is intended to be, but it would be fun to experiment with one of my favorite foods.
As I write, the sun has yet to emerge in my cool corner of California, but by mid-afternoon the situation will probably have changed enough that I could sit outdoors with some tea and some more reading material from which to glean. Happy reading to you, too!
Since my first reading of Leon Kass on the subject of dinner parties, I’ve wanted to share my excitement via my blog, and also to use this enthusiasm to try to host the sort of event he writes about toward the end of The Hungry Soul: Eating and the Perfecting of our Nature. That was many years ago, and since then I’ve read a similarly inspiring chapter in Supper of the Lamb by Robert Farrar Capon.
But actually giving the kind of convivial feast these men describe is a project requiring scores of preparatory steps, none of which is simple to insert into my schedule, crowded as it already is with many entrenched patterns and habits of socializing, or resting after socializing. Until such time as I had participated at some level in a formal dinner party, all I would be able to do on my blog would be to copy passages from books.
That longstanding situation changed last month when I was surprised and delighted to be part of a dinner for eight, given by my goddaughter Sophia. Her labor of love fulfilled the vision I had been given in the books, such as this from Kass’s introduction to his chapter “From Eating to Dining,” on what can happen when the plans have been laid with care and the guests chosen and seated wisely:
“One could speak about freedom — the ever-increasing emancipation from the bonds of instinct and appetite and the progressive cultivation of self-command. One could speak about beautification — the adornment of self and surroundings, the grace of gesture and movement, the delight in taste and tastefulness. One could speak of friendship and love, beginning with the companionable sharing of bread and moving, through the appreciative sharing of speech, to the meeting and cherishing of souls. One could speak about the cultivation of the mind, beginning in speech liberated by the satisfaction of necessity and moving through playful conversation and wit in the direction of the pursuit of wisdom.”
Both authors emphasize that in praising the glories of formal dinners done right, they are not denigrating all the other more casual arrangements that can be blessed and sanctified by thankfulness and love. When I started to expound on this elevated form to one of my daughters she was quick to defend the value of the more humble sort of hospitality that our family has extended to hundreds of people over the decades, or the meals I have served to my husband and children. I said not to worry, this is something else.
In some ways the simple soup and bread served to one’s own family, or a feast given for those one goes into the highways and byways to find, expresses a more Christlike spirit. The many generous and delicious meals friends have bestowed on me over my life, especially when accompanied by true fellowship, lacked nothing in graciousness and satisfaction. But the formal dinner party brings together at once many elements that add up to a supreme joy in our common humanity, and a taste of that Supper of the Lamb that we will enjoy in the coming Kingdom. The party I attended, given by Sophia, definitely imparted that flavor.
The evening began with the House Blessing itself. In the days and weeks following Theophany it’s the custom in Orthodox churches for the priest to visit the parishioners’ homes with some of the water that has been blessed on the feast day, and to sprinkle it around in every room, as everyone present prays along with him and sings the hymns of Theophany from room to room.
So we had all started out by singing and praying together through the house, and then we came to the table and found our assigned places. I love to go to a party where someone has chosen my place for me, and this, along with the relatively small number of diners, was the first sign to me that it would be a good evening. Capon tells us that “assignment to place by name is the host’s announcement that he cares.”
Capon spends the first pages of his chapter telling us why cocktail parties are so unsatisfying. It may be that many of my readers are like me in rarely having been to a cocktail party, but I well know the feeling of being at other events that follow a model seemingly designed “to frustrate any real meeting of all concerned.” No host has taken you personally into consideration and thought about whom you might like to sit next to. This informal system fails “to provide each person with an assigned and proper place,” which prevents them from forming a company. Not enough care is taken with the guest list, and the guests are left to themselves, making for an impersonal atmosphere.
I know that I often go to parties with a sort of rescuer or missionary mentality, thinking that the best thing I can do is to find someone who looks even more alone or forlorn than I myself feel, and try to be friendly. Capon thinks the whole cocktail party effort is doomed to failure:
“Besides being inhuman, however, the exercise is unmerciful. Too much liquor too fast is only the half of it. What is just as bad is having to wander around like a lost soul while people spill drinks down your back and wipe dips on your front. We are homeless enough, without having to come in out of the cold to nothing better than a warm exile, followed by a cleaner’s bill.”
Obviously our own group, assembled by my friend, had the advantage of being a company from the outset. We sat down to find a short printed menu on our plates – short, but promising more than ample feasting – and soon we were drinking champagne and eating the lovely salad, and having lively though sober table conversation.
The bill of fare I have posted above for your enjoyment; our hostess had cooked everything except the bread herself. That mysterious fourth course was cheese, with jam she had made. And she did not have anyone helping her in the kitchen except one of our party who must have given most of his help early on. She made the whole operation look very doable, without appearing at all put out by her labors. On the contrary, she was purely happy to have us.
Capon calls the formal dinner party “a sovereign remedy for the narrowness of our minds and the stinginess of our souls…It is precisely because no one needs soup, fish, meat, salad, cheese, and dessert at one meal that we so badly need to sit down to them from time to time. It was largesse that made us all; we were not created to fast forever. The unnecessary is the taproot of our being and the last key to the door of delight.”
Many of us have experienced a formal dinner party indirectly by reading Jane Austen or watching period movies or “Downton Abbey.” That doesn’t work for me, because we can’t enjoy the best parts of the experience, actually eating the food and having ourselves been cared for by the host. In these storybook events we can’t talk with our own real friends, but must instead participate vicariously in all the dramatic undercurrents of the fiction of which the dinner is a part.
So I’m for the revival of formal dinner parties given in our own homes, and not as a sort of historical reenactment. Each of us will practice this art in his unique way, customizing plans and expectations to accommodate his circumstances and particular ideals, perhaps opting for five courses as Sophia did, instead of the fourteen courses that Miss Manners says used to be common in some mythical time. If you are like me you will be required either to study up for a few years on the subject of wine or to settle for a much simpler offering in that department than what the dinner party pros can accomplish. But I agree with both Kass and Capon that wine is important.
You must choose your guests carefully. Capon reminds us that “To ask a man to break bread with you is to extend friendship, to proclaim in love that you want not his, but him….To invite guests is a courtesy, a courtly act: It confers greatness on all concerned, and therefore must never be done for mean reasons.” I think it is o.k. to have some quieter people in the group (Sophia had invited two little girls who were reserved.), but you must have a good number who know how to be convivial without talking too much. And you must think about how you seat them. I read one time that if you have two people who tend to dominate conversation, they may be restrained a bit by being seated side-by-side. That’s just an example of things that a good hostess thinks about. And if a group is larger than eight or ten, it is more likely that multiple conversations will spring up, which might divide the company and dilute the camaraderie.
Kass writes about the ideal dinner conversation, which “imitates the artfully prepared dinner. There is frequent change of course and topic. Each course in the meal is carefully prepared to look beautiful and to taste good, yet to be different from the rest. Conversation, too, will reflect that variety, yet each ‘course’ will please the palate of the mind. Because our interest is in both the speakers and the speeches, conversation enables us to taste, indeed to savor, the souls of our fellow diners — not their intimate private depths or their polished public personae, but that wonderful side of the soul at play, when it is unselfconsciously and immediately being its open, companionable, and responsive self.”
Along about the dessert course our host Sophia guided our dessert conversation by bringing out some books of poetry and prayers and asking us each to either read something from a book or to offer a story or song of our own, etc. Even the little girls could read, and did surprisingly well with 19th-century poetry. A humorous story was told about a grandpa, one read a Psalm, two of us sang scripture songs — we discovered that my goddaughter and I knew the same one that no one else had ever heard — and Pablo Neruda’s love poems were shared meaningfully. All of those offerings stimulated more conversation that truly did express the “tasty” souls of the guests.
Photos can’t very well express the rich texture of a small dinner party. Most of what you find online are of large wedding receptions or cluttered table decorations, or illustrations mocking these gatherings. I’m glad Leon Kass was able to find a work of art that I think does capture something of the sweetness of sharing such a meal, which is the one by Chabas above; I had to photograph the page in his book to share it here.
It looks as though the diners in that painting may be not only at the end of the table but at the end of their meal as well, and you will be relieved to know that I am at the end of my essay. My readers may wish that they had been spending this long while getting real nourishment for their souls instead of words about it. So I will quickly let Kass finish his paragraph and thought which I introduced at the beginning, because he sums up the highest ideal of the formal dinner party, and also describes the gift we guests received from Sophia that night:
“And one can speak also about piety and reverence, and the human impulse toward transcendence, beginning in awe and fear, and sometimes encouraged by wine, moving through feelings of gratitude and songs of praise in the direction of encountering the divine.”