It’s funny. I was sitting on a little grassy hill in March 2009, on an island in a crater lake in Uganda when I realized this peculiar truth, both big and small: I would always be a person who had lived in Africa.
In the wake of the canonization of St. Teresa of Calcutta and All Saints Day, I’ve been thinking about holiness.
I feel like I remember hearing or reading that Mother Teresa wasn’t always the most pleasant to work with, that she could be demanding, even grumpy. (Now I can’t find confirmation of this and worry I’m making it up. I did, however, find out that she took naps. So I’m well on my way to sainthood.) She certainly stirred up a great deal of controversy.
Maybe it’s just thinking about old ladies in foreign mission fields, but it kind of makes me think of an American lady I knew in Uganda. She was ornery, I guess is the best word for it. Though she had chosen to live out the balance of her life serving in Africa, she often complained bitterly about all kinds of things, the difficulty of finding food for her mangy cat, whatever. At Thanksgiving, at our bungalow, when she tried to quit smoking, she threw a knife across our kitchen into the sink and we kicked her off dinner prep. Upon meeting a friend for the first time at the grocery store, she loudly began a discourse on how itchy her underwear was. She was certainly a character.
On the other hand, though, she loved the people she served deeply, and spent down her fixed income on them. She wrote eloquent emails back home about what she was learning, and poured out helpful advice for us when we were preparing to embark. The local people, sometimes exasperated, treated her with respect, tolerance and quiet amusement. She obviously didn’t have the impact of Mother Teresa, and there were times when it was hard to tell if she was doing more good than harm. But she cared, very much. (Is efficacy a requirement for sainthood?) A little while after we left Uganda, she died, and was buried in the red dirt of her adopted home.
I have no idea how to weigh these two sides, to calculate holiness, but something struck me in her singleness of vision, no matter how it chafed against the more sensible folks around her. What I’m certain of is this truth: as a church today, we put too much stock in niceness, especially for women. Aslan is not a tame lion, and Jesus’s eyes flash with righteous anger. Is it any wonder that those who serve him most fully might have reason to grow impatient?
All this not to excuse my own very inexcusable crabbiness. Rather, I want to remind my daughter — and son — that goodness counts for more than politeness, that kindness isn’t always according to etiquette. Holiness is uncomfortable, and we would be wrong to flatten St. Teresa into a smiling, charming old woman, beloved by the world, and to believe that’s all God wants for us. The truth is pricklier.
Saint Teresa of Calcutta, pray for us.
I come from a baking family. On weekends, my introverted dad would cheerfully stay home and bake a double batch of homemade bread, sending me and my sister to deliver the spare loaf to one or another neighbor. Everyone baked cookies, and brownies, and cake, and pushed the baked goods on each other until the leftovers got sent to my parents’ office, or, later, into the garbage disposal growing bodies of our high school boyfriends.
I wasn’t a cook at all until I got married, and it wasn’t the “Mrs.” title that pushed me into it – it was social pressure in rural Uganda, where people made fun of J for cooking, which is regarded as women’s work there. It helped, too, that I was very bored, and also that if we wanted food from home, we were going to have to make it ourselves.
So I set out to make things, and the limitations of ingredients (ground beef was the only meat I could buy by myself; the only cheese was a nameless frozen waxy wheel) and tools (an incomplete set of measuring cups, a single chef’s knife) made cooking approachable. In fact, when I returned back to the US to an empty fridge, a kitchen full of new registry bounty, and a grocery store that stocked everything all the time, I felt acutely overwhelmed.
In her excellent Keeping House: A Litany of Everyday Life, Margaret Kim Peterson argues, “Cooking can be a way of actively receiving the gift of food and actively participating in handing that gift on to others.” That was key for me. My parents had modeled baking delicious things and sharing the bounty, but now I learned that pleasure firsthand as I learned to make spaghetti with homemade tomato sauce and Parmesan from those Pizza Hut packets sent in care packages. I started to make biscuits for J with canned cream, and saved jarred pesto bought with care in Kampala for a feast.
In Uganda, I’d search online on our slow internet connection for recipes with ingredients I could obtain: baked potato soup, cottage pie, meatballs, banana bread. For our housemate’s birthday, I made chocolate cake with painstakingly hand-whipped peanut butter icing, and chili with one of those spice packets my mother sent. For my birthday, friends smuggled the weird, half-thawed local ice cream into our freezer. Peterson observes, “When we cook we produce things to eat, of course but we produce something else too: acts of care.” When food from home was hard to come by, it became more clearly what it always is: a concrete currency of love.
For better or worse, I recognize my limits as a cook: I have basically no sense of smell, and it pretty seriously limits my ability to cook intuitively. (It’s hard to tell what you don’t have, but through casual experimentation we’ve found that I can’t discern tastes as sensitively as other people.) If it’s a success, I owe it in large part to the recipe; if it’s a flop, I can blame my nose, or the recipe author. But seeing cooking as a humble way to care for someone else frees me from all the things that might otherwise intimidate me about cooking: whether I can make it trendy or locally-sourced or Instagram-worthy. It’s just me, feeding people I care about.