True Grit.

In my earlier twenties I spent a bit of time down on the border doing missions work. While I enjoyed the work, in time I found the utter lack of aesthetics draining. Nothing is quaint, sweet, organized, or well-designed. Paint is chipping, holes in buildings are patched with cardboard or lamina, garbage is everywhere, city-planning means staking your claim wherever you can, green is a rarity. If you are a sensory, sensual person, this visual helter-skelter starts to wear on your spirit.

But on a recent trip to the border, walking across the bridge from Mexico back into the U.S., pulling my luggage through lanes of traffic, I felt something unlike my former disgust. And it wasn’t just nostalgia. Suddenly there was something I loved about how fast everything moved back and forth. I loved the grit, and the prevailing every-man-for-himself sentiment. Everyone carried baggage—the bags slumped over their shoulders was only a fraction of it.

You don’t have a lot of time to look around, especially if you’re in a dress and boots with jewelry and nice luggage. For reasons of personal safety, it’s better to look like you know what you’re doing and just keep moving. And you don’t stop when you get to the other side, either. There isn’t any place to stop anyway. You just keep trucking until you reach your destination, which on this trip happened to be McDonalds. But once there, discharged of my bags, I could finally take a look around. You can almost feel the grit. You look into the faces of the people crossing and you wonder where they’re going, what they’ve come from, and what they’ve got to hide.

It’s beautiful in the most awful way, and you almost like it because for once something is real.

We think we’re so clean in our green suburbs with our Costco and Home Depot and manicured flower beds, but we’re hiding something too, and I don’t know if our sugar-coated grit isn’t all the worse. Maybe I like the border because I crave something that can’t be covered up—depraved as it is. Maybe I crave being there because I want it to be glorious, but in a way that is as genuine as it is now genuinely gruesome.

I don’t think there is beauty in ugliness, but there is something enchanting about survivalism. There is something invigorating about people who don’t have the resources to cover up their mess. Those are the ones Jesus came to wash clean. I soak in the reality of this place—depraved to the point of ripe for a miracle—and I can’t help but smile.

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Brown Paper Package.

It took eight days to come and when it did I was almost more relieved for the sender than excited for the recipient (me). My dad could worry about things like that. I generally trusted in the postal system—if not their speed then in the idea that one day my sent item would turn up. How many days or weeks it might take was anyone’s guess.

I didn’t tear into it immediately. I put down my groceries and set my coffee to brew. I was going to savor this.

I cut the top off and pulled the contents out and laid them on my desk. A couple of credit card statements that somehow kept getting sent to my dad’s house (don’t worry—paid ‘em online), a missions prayer magazine, and a coupon from Starbucks for a free cake pop. Whoopie.

I looked at the book, Out of Our Minds. This was going to be interesting. I heard the author on a TED talk. I had ordered it some months ago from Amazon and it was backordered. I had no idea when it would arrive and hadn’t anticipated that I’d be moving back to Philadelphia in the interim. My dad didn’t really understand why it came to his house. I told him it could wait until next month when I visited.

But really the book constituted the premise for sending off the big padded envelope I was now digging into (you really ought to have it, he’d said), and I think what he really wanted to send was the two photos he had slid into a too-small envelope jimmy-rigged to hold and protect them. Maybe it would have seemed weird to send them and nothing else.

My sister had asked me the other night if I had received the package. She sounded a little worried. Why, I asked—did Dad stick money in it? Oh I don’t know about that she said, but I know he really wanted you to get the pictures. The tulips, right? Yes, she said. I think he must have been out there with his camera at about 6:00 am because when I got there late morning he’d already gone to Costco to get them developed. This was a serious errand.

Now I looked at the two photos—one for each side of the house where the tulips were in full bloom. There were three varieties: red, yellow, and combo red and yellow. I could see in the far corner the round buds of something that was distinctly non-tulip. In limited botanical vocabulary, he’d laboriously tried to explain to me over the phone the characteristics of this stranger in the land. Lots of petals and they all swirl around. Kind of fluffy and real full. I flipped through my mental card catalog of perennial varieties. Daffodil? I suggested. No, probably not. Now seeing the tight round bud in the photo confirmed the intruder as peony. We don’t know how it got there, we’ve never planted them or seen one come up with the other tulips before.

I looked at the photos of the tulips and admired my handiwork. I had planted them and they looked quite rich. When my mother was pregnant with me she planted these beds full of tulips and for at least sixteen years they continued to grace the property each spring. But even super-tulips imported from Holland pass their peak. A few years ago after a tulip hiatus, we decided it was time to renew the crop.

I set the photos prominently on my bedroom dresser, loving the sweet love that went into the taking, developing, and sending of them. Completely worth sending a whole package just to get them to me.

South By Southwest.

When it comes to domestic air travel, my expectations are abysmally low. Abuse and inhumanity are bundled in with the exorbitant ticket price. There are some injustices that will never be reconciled this side of heaven. I’m used to it.

I’ve thought semi-seriously about moving to Germany just for the opportunity to fly Lufthansa on a regular basis, and because I’ve noticed that they have really beautiful yogurt—Germany, not Lufthansa (what is it with me and the yogurt? Click here). The comfort, the TLC, the basic humanity of this airline makes sky travel not only simple but even enjoyable…delightful. I imagine that this is how it used to be back in the good old days, like the sixties, maybe. And why, for heaven’s sake, can U.S. airlines not get the concept of the warm, lemon-scented towel distribution pre-landing?

On a recent trip to Texas my host took the liberty of booking my flight on Southwest as it is his favorite airline. Southwest doesn’t usually have flights to most of the places I find myself traveling so I’ve never experienced this airline that someone would actually go so far as to recommend.

As an East Coaster, I’ve learned to be a touch suspect of overly nice people. I was trying to figure out if all these cheery, humorous Southwest employees really were as nice as they seemed to be, or if it was just a show. First, I think they actually are a decent group and secondly, I don’t care. These are airline workers, not friends and family. I’ll take a flight attendant’s fake nice over genuine rude any day. I’m sorry if non-Southwest flight attendants and ticket agents hate their job and company. As a human to a human, I don’t like to see anyone suffer. But should the sins of the airline honchos really be visited upon the passengers?

The fact that Southwest Airlines allows one to change a flight (as many times as you need to) with no charge suggests to me that they may be among the more decent in this biz. And experience has shown me that decent, humane leadership usually produces contented employees who then spill the decency over to their captive customers. Southwest attendants even ask you if you would like a refill on your beverage (but strike for no can), and have a very well-done in-flight magazine.

There’s still no warm, lemon-scented towel, but I’d say that Southwest, with their retro heart-inside-flight-wings logo and their “cattle-call” boarding scheme, is the best the U.S. has to offer.

De Rigueur.

Every time I see this word on a page I think to myself, I am in the presence of a great writer. A day or so ago I saw it in an article by Christopher Hitchens (who I do regard as a very great writer) and was reminded of my delight for this expression. He used it in the opening of his article this way: “I don’t think that a single newspaper or magazine article on Egypt has ever failed to mention the presence, in the wings of Egyptian politics, of the Muslim Brother hood. It’s one of those learned references that is de rigueur for every commentator and analyst…”

And yet as much as I love it, I consistently forget the definition, and fail to incorporate it into my own vocabulary, giving my verbiage that pompous flavour one achieves by tossing in the occasional (or frequent) foreignism—especially French.

According to the American Heritage Dictionary, the expression is defined as: “Required by the current fashion or custom; socially obligatory.” It comes from the French, meaning literally, “of strictness.”

‘De rigueur’ has a jaunty, highbrow sense about it, like an aristocrat atop his steed or a socialite at a gathering of the ladies’ club. Used in a sentence (your fifth grade teacher was right–it really does help you remember words if you practice using them in a sentence): “Though trendy language and movie-inspired quotes had become de rigueur in the writing biz, she preferred to stick with her usual timeworn language and antiquated literary allusions.”

But I fear ‘de rigueur’ is one of those sad examples of words that look far better on the page than they sound coming out of the mouth. Pronounced with the French accent it comes out something like deh-rih-GOO, with the lion’s share of the emphasis on the GOO. GOO. Unappealing. Perhaps it’s not a word I want to crowbar into my speech as much as my writing. It can still be delightful there.

Magic Lotion.

Common wisdom advises that one should never go to the grocery store when hungry. Inevitably you come home with a lot more than you need, and mostly junk food that promises to feed the craving of the moment, meaning more munchies than milk and eggs. I might append that counsel with the admonishment that when you’re suffering any sort of physical pain, keep thyself out of the pharmacy aisles. Anything that promises to restore and soothe those aching, torqued muscles gets a free ride in your cart right up to the check-out.

Tonight I was cruising through the aisles of one of the least delightful locales on the planet (Wal-Mart) and I happened into the lotion aisle. I had no business being there as I have been burned by bad Wal-Mart lotion in the past (all sweet smells and no business), but something beckoned me on. A plastic bottle filled with green cream and labeled THERAPY, caught my eye. Huh. “Muscle Relief Lotion,” it promised. Interesting. I unscrewed the top for a whiff. Nice.  Very nice. Juniper, sage, and wintergreen. Wow. There was no price tag (typical), but I decided to roll the dice anyways.  But not before I was cajoled into grabbing a ginormous bag of relief-promising, aromatherapy oil-infused Epsom salts.

The aromatherapy Epsom salts are still under investigation, as I couldn’t get bathwater that was hot enough for me to want to stay in it very long at all. But I did give the lotion a go and I must report, this lotion is magic lotion. Immediately my skin started tingling and the sensations took off swinging back and forth between warm and heated to cool and icy. Strange but wonderful, and my muscles actually do feel remarkably better. Ice is nice, but this lotion is better at twice the price.

Made by The Village Company, I recommend you go to the website (here) as you’ll probably never find it at another Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart’s distribution has never approximated any semblance of regularity or uniformity. And don’t bother asking anyone because no one will have ever heard of it or seen it. Just seek this one out on your own.

Dairy-land.

At least eighteen times the Bible refers to Israel as a land flowing with milk and honey. And let me tell you, God really meant business on this one. While for centuries the jury was out on the honey issue, recent excavations have finally brought forth the long-elusive Israeli apiaries. But the honey, though splendid I’m sure, is not the subject of my paean.

Though it might sound funny, one of my favorite parts of my trip to Israel was their dairy products. Sure, the antiquities were marvelous, but I ate Greek-style strained yogurt of unspeakably high fat content with an enviable frequency. Our grocery stores here in the U.S. feature the 0%, the 2% and maybe the occasional 8% varieties. But while I was unable to read much of the other Hebrew labeling, I could generally guess what the big 28 on the label was referring to. Heaven.Had.Come.Down. And I was eating it with a big spoon.

Every kibbutz and hotel we stayed at had big bowls of this white delight every morning. No chintzy strawberry-aspartame-laden Yoplait, this was the real deal. Unadulterated and glorious, no additives required or desired. I would be lying if I said I never considered moving to Israel simply for the food.

And this galvanizes my point that Israel is one of the most delightful places on earth, ranking right up there with Disneyworld (ha). As I continue multiplying my delights on this blog, expect to see Israel making at least a few repeat appearances. There’s just so much enchantment crammed into one small place. Dairy is just a foretaste of wonders to come.

The Forum.

I’ve never been one to go around answering questions on Internet forums, but boy, am I glad there are people who do.

Recently I’ve been suffering no small bit of anxiety over a very large goose-egg-style bump on my lower shin. It’s the result of repeated injuries to that exact same location (feels great, thanks for asking) and now, even with ice and elevation, it persists, unchanged in size. The only good news to report is that it hurts a little less than before.

Well, the whole thing didn’t seem right to me. Shins aren’t supposed to do this. Something is going on under the surface, but for heaven’s sake what? When I mentioned my anxiety to a friend she said, why don’t you look on the Internet?

Sure. I tried that. We all know that the Internet is today’s go-to guide for how to treat anything from slivers to gunshot wounds. But type in anything related to “swelling in leg” and you get a whole lot of hits about high blood pressure, edema, heart problems, sprained ankles and every other problem that might cause a leg to swell, but not having anything to do with my particular ailment.

No, she continued, type it in exactly like you said. Something like “what do I do for a goose-egg on my leg.” I figured it couldn’t hurt and I certainly wasn’t going to go to a doctor, so I was open to suggestions.

Wouldn’t you know it turned up exactly what I was seeking. From Yahoo answers to specific martial arts and Muay Thai forums, dozens of people had weighed in on the goose-egg-on-shin condition—how you get it (generally being kicked or kicking someone else with the shin), what it is (swelling and probably calcium deposits), how to treat it (ice, heat, elevation, and time), and how long it lasts (a month to forever).

This short investigation immediately erased my fears that a painful surgical drainage procedure involving knives and needles was my imminent fate. All of these knowledgeable, or at least experienced, individuals had taken the time to describe the problem in detail and then tell the world it was really nothing to worry about.

I went to bed much relieved, and even delighted.

Wonka.

If ever there was a man who understood the business of delight, Willy Wonka was he. I could only wish that more of the American marketplace were so committed to being sensational in all that they do.

I recently took on an article assignment to write about Wonka products. Today, in the non-fictional world, Wonka products fall under the Nestle umbrella. But I wanted to know more about all Wonka products—not just the Nestle creations we can find in a candy shop.

Maybe Roald Dahl is the one who should get the credit for being delightful. He wrote Wonka and all of his products into existence in 1964 with his children’s novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Before Dahl put his mental creations onto paper, the world had never heard of such things as ice cream that doesn’t melt, toffee that makes you grow hair, feathery melt-away sweets, color-changing caramels, candy balloons, egg candy that hatches into birds, whipplescrumptious fudgemallow delights, mint sugar grass, gum that turns into a meal, everlasting gobtoppers, eatable marshmallow pillows, lickable wallpaper, hot ice creams for cold days, exploding candy for enemies, fizzy lifting drinks, or television chocolate.

Each innovation was the product of pure imagination. Nestle does a good job of trying to keep up the imaginative, whimsical theme in their candy products and marketing. Aren’t we are all delighted by the sweetart and the pixy stik? But I imagine it’s difficult for a multi-million dollar, multi-national corporation to really reproduce the generous, awe-filled approach to life and business that we see in this one (fictional) man. I mean, I’m still looking for my golden ticket.

Fictional or not, Willy Wonka stands as a model; reminding us that imagination has no ceiling and that delightful sweetness is a very high calling indeed.

Want to learn more about Wonka products? Click here to read the article.

Mom.

There are people in our lives that demonstrate what it means to be delighted and delightful. In the very way they live, move, and have their being, they teach us to expect quite a bit more than our mediocrity-inclined society will dish out if we don’t intentionally demand better.

My mother and I speak a similar language of delight. We don’t need to explain to each other why something needs to be as beautiful and as special as it can be. That doesn’t mean throwing money around and sparing no expense, but inexpensive doesn’t have to mean tacky.

When I was in first grade, we had to bring decorated boxes to school to collect our valentines. Though we were quite poor, my sister and I attended private school. Socio-economically, our classmates trumped us by quite a large margin. As a six-year-old I was concerned to the point of anxiety with this Valentine’s Day box. The other children were bringing in large, elaborately decorated boxes. Did we even have a spare shoebox around?

I was starting to despair, my child’s mind dreading the mortification that I knew was coming. We couldn’t afford to buy the big stickers and elaborate decorations. But it didn’t matter what my mother’s income, she always knew what style meant. She skillfully cut a Grape-Nuts box (probably in use at the time) into a mailbox and covered it in thick, glossy white paper. She cut a big heart out of gold paper and found little valentines pictures in magazines and newspapers. She pasted them onto the box. With the items we had around our apartment, she created a work of sheer beauty. The only thing more money would have bought us was something mass-produced and common. My box was far from common. It wasn’t even red.

Most of what I’ve learned about delight and living a delighted life  I have learned from her. Her creativity, her style, her savoir-faire know no bounds. Not only do I love her for being my mother, but I truly just like her quite a lot. She delights me.

Cardamom.

Cardamom isn’t my favorite spice. Cinnamon is. And chipotle pepper powder is fast taking second place. But cardamom delights, fascinates, and enchants me. It is exotic and unpredictable—you never know how strong it’s going to come on or how exactly it will affect the flavor of the foods into which you sprinkle it.

Tonight I was on a conference call meeting, so that meant I was multi-tasking in the kitchen. I stood at the counter, hovered over my mortar and pestle, shelling cardamom pods. The little shriveled green pods are no bigger than my pinkie nail. I stood there semi-hypnotized by the aroma and the repetitive action, picking up the little pods, digging in my thumbnails to break the shell, and then pulling it back to expose the cardamom nugget inside. It is supposed to be dark black, but a lot of them were light brown. They’re still edible, but I think the flavor is better in the black ones. I shake the little cardamom bits into the mortar and then discard the papery green shell on the counter. I pick up another pod and repeat the practice.

Even though it’s tedious, I grind my own cardamom. You can’t match the flavor of fresh ground spices with the dried-out rubbish that comes in the jar. Cardamom flavor is complex and bold and faceted—processing dumbs it down.

I bought these pods last summer in Jerusalem at a spice shop in the Muslim Quarter. I have several jars full of them. They remind me of Turkish coffee and an Israeli summer and places more exotic and magical than suburban Philadelphia.

I sprinkled my fresh-ground cardamom over a bowl of pears and yogurt. Tomorrow I will brew it into my coffee. The flavor and the fragrance bring on the memories that remind my heart of longing and though I am delighted, I am sad. You can be both, you know.