I thought of my Aunt Geneva today as I chopped onions, minced garlic and sliced shitake and baby portabella mushrooms to complement tonight's grilled beef tips.
I thought of her because while she was careful with money, she never skimped on good food. She was the kind of woman who bought only whole cashews. No bits and pieces for her with their insistence that you troll around the bowl with an index finger, searching for a decent whole nut among the broken cashew halves.
She came to mind again when I was trying to hasten the process of softening a cup of butter by sticking it in the microwave for 30 seconds. Instantly I thought, Aunt Geneva never would have done this.
She would have done it the right way, thinking ahead, softening it on the counter in a covered butter dish for about an hour before she needed it. She would have told me my quick-melt carelessness was a harsh way to treat our best food friend, the flavor enhancer of all flavor enhancers: butter.
As I poured good red wine and a cup of beef stock into the sautéed mushroom mixture, now browned and full of luscious bottom-of-the-pan debris, I agreed with Aunt Geneva. Now that I'm retired, I should have enough time to treat the projects and everyday living chores of my life with tenderness and care. I should be able to do things without rushing, to create a life without shortcuts.
In fact in these post-career years, I should look like something very close to June Cleaver as I manage our home, tend to the dogs, visit friends, shop for food, play cards, make homemade soups and roasts, write stories, books and poetry, play and sing music, read good books, travel a little and write letters to my grandchildren on handmade cards.
I should be executing these projects with a calm steadiness, planning ahead, attending to details and relishing the pleasure of whatever it is I am doing. No rush, just nicely settled into the moments, enjoying the chance to do it.
Since this wasn't the attitude permeating my days, I decided it was time to stop and examine my life, now two years into retirement. I know that the patterns I am setting now might be the ones I carry through the next twenty years. I need to be sure I'm not falling into retirement rather than grasping it for all the chances it gives me. I asked myself these questions:
How am I using my precious retirement years? Am I living my life in a way that allows me to do things the right way, with no shortcuts? Am I engaging my senses and my mind in the thousand myriad details of daily living, embracing the smell of polished floors and simmering chops? Am I doing what I really want to do with my days, or am I just going through the motions of daily stuff? Am I doing what is important to me? Do I realize the clock is ticking and if I plan to do meaningful work, I need to identify what it is, and get after it now?
Writing down the answers, speaking them out loud as if I were on a stage talking to 250,000 other baby boomers on the cusp, I realized I have a consciousness to raise: my own.
Here's what I came to today:
#1. I will be more mindful of what I am doing, when I am doing it. I will honor the moments when deep red summer tomatoes are in my hand, ready to slice. I will delight in the squeaky feel of freshly husked corn and the sharp scent of Clorox bleach in a load of white sheets.
#2. I will take no shortcuts, unless they are inconsequential to the process. I will plan ahead and take all the time needed to stay focused and happily calm as I create and complete writing projects, wonderful food, piano and harp solos and dogs who want little more than a dependable bowl of food and a big long walk every day, rain, snow, sleet or shine.
#3. I will take the time to meditate, raise up and honor the lives of others. The fastest way to get over yourself is to pray for others, my grandmother used to say. Get going, she'd say. I will.
When this small list was finished, I smelled the doneness of the mushroom mélange. It was ready to receive sirloin beef tips. Tossing the beef on the hot grill, I inhaled the joyful summer smell of grilled meat.
Setting the table for our Wednesday night supper, I found myself putting the placemats in just the right position, the dinner plates perfectly in the center, the white cloth napkins more carefully re-folded, the knife, fork and dessert spoon wiped clean of any water spots.
No shortcuts. Plenty mindful. And serious thanks for that Swede from North Dakota who would walk through the door any minute now, sniffing the air for supper smells, looking for a bowl of whole cashews. I love a man with an appetite.
My consciousness of the moment was raised. It's a start.
Martha Nelson is a retired award-winning journalist, educator, nonprofit executive, and chef. Her first novel, Black Chokeberry, was published in April 2012.