It started with a joke. In my case about Australia’s lack of good pastrami and how I was going to single-handedly fix that problem. Pete’s Premium Pastrami.
Funny how jokes do that. How they provide that small crack of light as we bore away at the tunnels of our lives. They somehow safely invite us through to another side of ourselves and our situations.
That’show trying to make my own pastrami this week taught me a bit about my relationship with faith and with my homespun God.
The new god that is Google is synonymous with ‘start’ nowadays and I started by looking up pastrami recipes that might somehow approximate the lush sandwich meat available at Katz’s Deli, an institution of New York City’s Lower East Side.
And, for me, it’s a place of special associations: introducing visiting Aussies to the New York of an older era; a teen girlfriend’s shy dad bringing meals home to an awkward and tiny kitchen I tried to fill with humour; walking and talking there after midnight with drunken pals through 80s streets of suburban skinheads; signs saying “Send a Salami to Your Boy in the Army”. (I just sent myself to the Army instead.)
The internet showed me a series of several steps to get to the stated goal. Brine. Desalinate. Rub. Rest. Smoke. Steam. Serve. In its careful ritual, for some reason, the process of cooking this Jewish American delicacy reminded me – oh blasphemy! – of the Church’s Stations of the Cross. So, I played with it on social media: The Taking of the Waters, the Holy Smoking, The Meat is Risen etc.
But as the week closed out and I stood there slicing pink slivers off a slab of meat, I realised I’d learned something more than how to prepare pastrami. Somehow distraction had turned to devotion, and fun to faith.
Lesson 1: that I choose to believe. But for its lack of pastrami, Australia is the world’s greatest country. So, it would be easy enough to content myself with its many contentments. Or, I can make a choice. I can choose to find a way to make pastrami; I can make an effort. As Tim Minchin in his brilliant valedictory address to the University of Western Australia noted (Tim Minchin Valedictory Speech): there’s no inherent meaning, but with our everyday actions and choices, we have a whole life to assign one. God – or your Higher Power or your own 42 – isn’t set to auto pilot; it’s approached through what a smarter person than me calls “constant gardening”.
Lesson 2: that spiritual practice takes practice. In the end, my pastrami turned out more a corned beef suited to a creamy white sauce by Suzi’s English grandmother. To get it right next time, I will need to practice and perfect my brining techniques and my smoking techniques in particular. The recipe corners I cut resulted in a poorer cut of beef. And it’s like that with things spiritual and religious: they take practice before one gets even close to yielding a result. It’s no secret why Buddhist monks say that “pain is the teacher” as their knees scream from hours of meditative position. I am reminded of an earnest friend from student days who went on to the Ukrainian Catholic priesthood, who once said to me: “The hardest thing you can do is get on your knees.” (What’s it about religious folk and knees…)
Lesson 3: we are created in His/Her Image. But we certainly ain’t Him or Her. My successes in life are truly a gift from someplace I struggle to rationally comprehend; my many mistakes in life and in pastrami prep are evidence for the court that I am totally and utterly flawed – both by original design and by poor behaviours. Yes, I am curious and creative, and I wanted to make a better pastrami. That’s the part of me that’s just a little bit God-like; that part of me and each and every one of us that can do things even more super than Siri. And, equally yes, I get distracted by other tasks, or I get lazy about an ingredient, or I stuff up the timings or temperatures. Not because I’m bad per se, but because I’m human and therefore perfectly imperfect.
Lesson 4: we are all lost and we can all be found. I truly didn’t have a clue on how to make a pastrami, but I looked it up, read about what old Jewish experts have done for a long time, sought precedent and history, and somehow at least adequately figured it out. Had I been chucked a piece of meat and been left only to my own wits, I think I would have ended up giving a great feed of raw beef to our dogs, George Costanza, Mishka and Bonza. It’s been like that for me in situations of morality too. Left to my own devices, there hasn’t been a great run-rate. In fact, golden duck. When I leave myself aside, however, and refer to something bigger and older than me – an existing moral code or the counsel of a wiser human – I do okay. People marvel at 12 Step Programs and their positive impact. It’s pretty simple really. Their process of humble surrender enables higher service of others.
Lesson 5: God does indeed live in the small things. When I’m especially struggling, I go slow and low. I bring my emotional ‘field of fire’ down to something small. Like concentrating on the extraordinary ecosystem vibrantly present in an ocean rockpool at the end of one of Sydney’s stunning beaches. Like trying my hand at some new task, like this week’s pastrami. Like watching the sheer joy of dog and tennis ball, or boy and sci-fi book, or my daughter arranging beautiful native flowers with all the names I can’t remember. Like putting my heart in that otherwise pointless convo with the McDonalds’ server – or as David Brooks calls it “the revolution of small connections.”
Where we find not only meat, but where we find grace.