Last December, when I was in a really dark place at work, I hired a career coach to help me figure out my next step. I filled out a form answering a number of questions, one of which asked what an "ideal life" would look like. Bear with me if this sounds hokey, because in the end, answering this question changed the course of my year. I wrote:
"I would work half-time in a role that would keep me connected to the public sphere. The rest of my time would be spent pursuing writing projects, making home-cooked meals on a daily basis, caring for family and friends, providing hospitality and service to people in my community."
In a follow-up exercise, I mentioned that I would never, ever get tired of reading, writing, or cooking. Since December, that "ideal life" has come to pass. What's interesting is how different it feels to live it in real life, compared to what it looked like in my imagination. For example, despite all the work I did with my coach to plan the next chapter of my career, I almost missed my chance.
The week after I resigned, a social enterprise and catering company called JustCatering emailed to ask if I was interested in a position. I told them the truth: I was pretty burned out from my last job and needed to take a break for a couple of months. No problem -- they still wanted to interview me, just to start a conversation. That conversation continued for four more months, until I was ready to work again. Leadership? They'd just hired a pastry chef and former cafe owner that I really admired. Support? I'd always be working with a team. Money? Financially, I knew I'd be taking a huge pay cut, but calculated that if I worked 20 hours a week, Kevin and I could swing it. They offered me 20 hours.
Just as everything had fallen into place, I got an email from the Vancouver Foundation in response to a job application I'd sent in on impulse. The biggest community foundation in Canada, it had spearheaded research and funded projects that had been really meaningful to me. They wanted to interview me for a position that, a year ago, would also have been my "dream job." It was an opportunity to work with some of the most talented not-for-profit leaders in the city at an organization that I had put on a pedestal for years.
For about a week, I wrestled with the question: what's the real dream? At JustCatering, I'd be cooking, yes, and I'd be afforded the precious time to read and write, but I'd also be driving a van to pick up boxes of coffee and pasta from warehouses. I'd be sweeping floors and laundering dinner napkins and manning an industrial dishwasher. My coworkers would be folks who experience hardships that I may never fully understand: battles with substance use, chronic pain, physical disabilities, persistent mental illness.
And so, when faced with a difficult decision about which path to pursue, I turned to the Old Testament, which I love, because it's full of stories of people like me, full of flaws and longings, people whom God lamented and loved anyway. This time, I flipped to the story of Moses in Exodus.
What struck me were not the excuses that Moses made when God called him to go speak before Pharoah. Instead, I was riveted by the response of the Israelites after they had been freed from slavery. God had placed them on the path to their "ideal life." They were marching towards their own nation. And yet they complained of being thirsty and hungry. They longed for the familiarity of Egypt, even though that familiarity meant enslavement.
I would have been such a good Israelite. With the JustCatering job, I was essentially being given a pathway to a life that I had longed for, and yet I was afraid. Afraid of the pay cut, afraid of the lack of prestige, afraid my family wouldn't approve, afraid of my days being taken up with tasks that don’t require a college degree to accomplish. I had sought a way of life different from what I had been living for so long. And now, God had prepared a way. Why was I reluctant to take what he offered?
And so I repented. I confessed my desires for financial stability, for status, the desire to work with influential people -- none of these are bad things, but I knew they weren't what I was being called to do during this season of my life. And God quieted my heart. Then he reframed the decision. Instead of being about "What's the real dream?" God turned it into "Take this gift."
He brought a community of encouragers alongside me. A former board member of JustCatering sat with me one morning and shared the bigger vision of the organization. My best friend from college reminded me of my dreams of working in food -- dreams I’ve had since I was 18. My favourite aunt told me that the family actually supported the JustCatering position: they thought part-time work would be more conducive to starting a family. And instead of worrying about finances, I saw that really, I was incredibly privileged to even be able to take a pay cut and still be ok.
So I took the gift. I withdrew my application from the Vancouver Foundation, and told JustCatering I was on board.
And you know what? Living the dream is not always easy, or conflict-free, nor am I suddenly a better or more faithful version of myself. All the stuff that I was worried about before? It didn't magically disappear. The manual labour? I got tendonitis in my wrist after just a few weeks at work. The concerns about prestige? Catered a wedding over the summer where I ran into an acquaintance from college. As obnoxious 18-year-olds we had joked that we were part of the "800 Club" because we'd both gotten perfect scores on a portion of our SATs. Now, he's a corporate lawyer. Me? I was wearing an apron and scraping chicken bones off of empty dinner plates.
What I've come to see is that the beauty of the "ideal life" is not in the activities of life itself. It's not about the half-time job, or the time to write, or the luxury of being able to meet friends during the day. The beauty is that I'm living a life that fits. A couple years ago, my friend Kathy prayed a beautiful prayer over me. She used the metaphor of a coat that God had made: everything about it, from the colours, to the cut, down to the last stitch of thread, was made to suit me . She prayed that I would experience life as God had created me to be. A life that fits.
My good friend Trixie thinks that part of what I was created to do is use food to nourish people -- not just physically, but also spiritually and emotionally. And since starting work at JustCatering, I've felt many moments where I think, "Yes, this is right." Part of my job is cooking a four-course dinner for a group of Aboriginal elders at a seniors home a couple times a week. They eat low-salt, no-spice, and their favourite food group is jello. Not exactly what I'd dreamt of when I hoped to work with food. But cooking for them has been one of the most joyous parts of my job. An evening with them feels like running a tiny restaurant where my only customers are regulars. One elder calls me "My dear child," and in response I've teasingly started calling him, "My good sir." Another elder in particular is especially encouraging, and always makes a point to let us know that the meal was "Excellent, excellent," before he leaves. He's also a huge fan of my chocolate pudding, and for almost a week straight in August, hopefully asked, "Is there chocolate pudding for dessert tonight?"
Finally, over Labour Day weekend, I made a big batch and was able to say, "Yes!" This recipe is one adapted from John Scharffenberger, via Smitten Kitchen and Wednesday Chef. The original recipe was phenomenal. Intense, silky, dark, it was the little black dress of chocolate puddings. But to me, chocolate pudding is a homey dessert. I didn't want a LBD so much as I wanted a pair of comfy black sweatpants. So I dialled down the sweetness and the intensity of the chocolate and swapped white sugar for brown to add some caramel-like notes. The resulting pudding begs to be lapped up while watching TV, shared with children (and elders!), or eaten for a second breakfast after your husband has gone to work.
Heavily adapted from John Scharffenberger (his method uses a double-boiler) and Smitten Kitchen (who adds two ounces more chocolate!).
1/4 cup cornstarch (30g)
1/4 cup dark brown sugar, packed (60g)
1/8 teaspoon salt
3 cups whole milk
2/3 cup good semi-sweet chocolate chips (115g)
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1. Combine the cornstarch, sugar and salt in a medium saucepan. Whisk in roughly two tablespoons of milk, scraping the bottom and sides of the pan, until no lumps remain. Slowly pour in the rest of the milk, whisking until smooth.
2. Cook, uncovered, over low heat, scraping the bottom and sides of the pan with a spatula every minute or so, to check if the mixture is thickening. If the spatula comes up with thickened cornstarch on the tip, whisk the mixture for a few seconds to prevent lumps. However, there is no need to whisk continually – in fact, doing so will incorporate too much air, and will result in a pudding that is not silky, but full of tiny bubbles. As the mixture thickens, the texture will change quite delightfully. First, the milk will seem more voluptuous in the pan, like the milk in cereal commercials. Then it will thicken until it resembles a cream sauce, or béchamel. Finally, it will resemble custard. It will take anywhere from 10 to 15 minutes for the pudding to get to this point.
3. Stir in the chocolate chips, and continue stirring until no chocolate streaks remain. Remove the pudding from the heat and stir in vanilla.
4. Serve warm, or place in the refrigerator for an hour or more to chill. To prevent a skin from forming over the top, place a sheet of plastic wrap against the surface of the pudding before storing.