Friday, February 6, 2015

Filling the Vessel: Sweet Potato Coconut Soup

Last weekend when I was on retreat with freshmen, I found myself in conversation with the Associate Director of our learning center and some other students on the topic of procrastination.

I admitted that I never could procrastinate; that I always did things immediately when they'd been assigned, or figured out how to start them and finish them well before the deadline.

I was the only one at the table, and my colleague asked me to what I attributed my behavior.  I speculated that it was my father's influence; that growing up in a home run by an ex-Marist brother, who was an old-World Catholic father, made for structure and order.  But I know there's more to it than that.  Yes, my father expected perfection of me.  But I internalized those expectations easily.  They fit.

I joke about my Type A tendencies, but the reality is, it's probably excessive.  I alphabetize my spices and books (by genre).  When I turn off the lights on a multi-switch panel, I want them to be facing the same direction.  I like my shoes lined up neatly, facing out.

It's compulsive, pure and simple.

During my brief stint in therapy for depression, I was also diagnosed with anxiety.  And while it was partly situational, it's also part of who I am.  I keep things in order because order keeps anxiety at bay.  Order is my coping mechanism.

When I look back now at my experiences in front of a classroom, or even my oral exams in graduate school, I recognize it there, too: pages and pages of notes and preparation, to the point of overpreparation, which led to my inability to communicate.  I've gotten better at that, too, with a little more confidence, but when I step into a new situation, I have to be vigilant.

Because if I concentrate too much on form, I have no room to consider content.  If I'm too stuck on order, I can't be where I am; I am too busy thinking about what needs to come next in order for the whole thing to not fall apart.  I worry about the vessel, to the extent that I'm unable or unwilling to fill it.

I've noticed these tendencies come creeping back into my life when things become stressful, partly reinforced by the fact that in a very small number of hours each day we need to make sure that kids get fed, lunches get made, we get out the door on time to drive the kids to school and before care while getting to work on time, laundry gets done, we pick the kids up from their separate schools/aftercare, homework gets done, dishes get done, dinner gets made, and the bathrooms don't get too completely disgusting (trust me when I say that I'm much less compulsive about that than you might imagine).  Non-procrastinator that I am, I try to do as much as I can in advance, so that I'm not doing it at the last minute (e.g. cooking for a few dinners at at time), but I still wind up feeling like somehow I've lost interest in (or perhaps time for?) the things that once interested me: art, music, poetry, fiction.  I don't go to the movies. I don't go to museums.  I don't go to the theater.  I barely get in one yoga class a month.  I manage one book a month, which I read because my book group expects me to show up having read it (thank god for book group).  The weekends somehow vanish into things that the kids need to do, or more preparation of meals, or more laundry, or a rare (it seems) hour of exercise.

But if you know anything about anxiety, you know that you can't just tell someone to "stop worrying so much," or "let it go" or (that advice that IF survivors love) "just relax."

The difference between now and when I first started going to therapy is that I see the signs; I know why I feel like a sumo wrestler is sitting on my chest.  It happens when I'm feeling a lack of control over life, and am trying to bring order to it, losing all of my time to the bringing of order instead of to the living.

What I have to figure out, in my own way, is how to fill the vessel instead, cracks notwithstanding.

Are you the kind of person who worries about the container, or can you focus on filling it?  Are you able to do both?

Thai Sweet Potato–Coconut Soup
I'm going to make this soup for one of our friends who will be in chemo next month.  The broth is thin, but you can add anything you want to make it a bit more hearty: rice, vegetables, some shimp or chicken or tofu.  It's the sort of soup that will look equally lovely in a beautiful bowl, or in a cracked mug.

8 c. vegetable broth
2 (14.5 oz.) cans coconut milk
3 (1") pieces fresh ginger
2 shallot bulbs, halved and bruised
3 kaffir lime leaves or 1 t. lime zest
1 stalk lemongrass, cut in chunks and bruised
1/4 t. salt
3 sweet potatoes or yams, peeled and cut into 1" cubes
1 lb. cooked shrimp, tofu, chicken (optional)
cooked rice (optional)
Squeeze of fresh lime juice
Chopped fresh mint, for garnish
Chopped fresh cilantro, for garnish

In a 6-quart pot over medium heat, bring the broth, coconut milk, ginger, shallots, lime leaves, lemongrass, and salt to a slow boil for about 20 minutes (don't overdo it or your coconut milk will separate). Decrease the heat to low and continue to let the flavors mingle for another 30 to 40 minutes.

Remove the shallots, lime leaves, and lemongrass with a slotted spoon or a sieve (it's actually hard to catch all of the bits unless you use something fine enough to capture them). Add the sweet potatoes, turn the heat back up to medium, and simmer until the potatoes are tender, about 15 minutes.

Purée the soup in small batches in a blender or right in the pot with your stick blender until smooth. Reheat, ladle into soup bowls over the protein of your choice, add a squeeze of the lime juice, and garnish with the mint and cilantro.

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  1. Oh my goodness could I relate to this. I am also compelled to create order when I'm trying to keep anxiety at bay. And yes, its about all the things we have to do in such a short period of time. but yes, its easy to lose sight of the POINT of it all, when you're making lists, checking off items and then making more lists. I've actually been trying to sit down for 10-15 minutes a week (today was the first day I did it, actually!) to think about the real goals and intentions behind all the work I do at work and at home. To find (again) the meaning beyond "it needs to be done so I'll do it".

  2. *This* - right here - is everything I love about your writing. The words, the honesty, the revelations. I too am someone who thrives on order and who at times has found the unpredictability of non order downright scary. Today I'm going to focus on filling the vessel instead of fussing with getting my shoes all pointed in the right direction - thanks to your reminder. xo

  3. It's interesting. I am very guilty of procrastination and yet I could relate with all you said here. My problem is that while I procrastinate, I stress and obsess about what is due. To overcome it, I've learned to give myself mini-deadlines, but the tendency is still there.

  4. This spoke to my heart. I was the type of student who ordered all of her books before the semester began and read them over the break. So there was never a break because I worked through the break. And that is how I still live my life. It feels like there is little to no downtime because I'll think to myself, "you could use this time to get ahead with X, Y, Z." And yet, I also know that I often feel burned out, over tired, stretched thin. I can't fall asleep at night because my mind is still organizing things.

    You've given me a lot to think about. But how to start leaving things undone so I can unwind?


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