Excellence by Instinct

It wasn’t until we knew she was dying that I asked my grandmother to teach me her secret recipes. I have always been slow to recognize value in things and people until I’m close to losing them. Nana was gracious and patient, despite what must have been an extraordinary amount of pain and weariness near the end of her life, and showed me anything I wanted to learn.

She stood with me in her narrow hallway of a kitchen (really only big enough for two people at a time) and made her signature recipes while I watched. The soups I could handle and her delicious coffee cake had an easy enough starting point (a box of yellow cake mix), but I balked when we got to the biscuits, the most prized recipe of all.

She did everything by feel, not a measuring cup or spoon in sight. Her hands looked like potter’s hands as she kneaded and slapped and pulled at the dough until it “felt right”. And like potter’s clay, that bowl of flour and lard was transformed into perfect, fluffy delectable biscuits without giving me the barest hint of what had happened in between. I’m a quick study when I have a readable plan laid out, but ask me to learn by sight or feel and you may as well be asking me to pick up ancient Greek by listening real, real close. I’ll nod and smile, but my brain is asleep.

I look back on that moment with my Nana whenever I encounter something new that seems too big or complicated or entirely “other” to absorb. I remember we were standing by the microwave as she mixed the batter and I remember that Nana smiled with a shy shrug when she saw how impressed I was. When I struggled to learn Chinese, to strum a guitar, and EVERY time I outline a new novel that I HOPE to see through to completion, I remember Nana’s hands, caked in biscuit batter and reaching for a dash more flour to get it just right.

Nana wasn’t born with an innate gift for baking the perfect biscuit. She had just done it a thousand, thousand times before. Her hands were so familiar with the batter that they hardly needed her mind to be engaged at all to get it right. I’ll likely never bake the perfect biscuit, made from scratch and without a recipe, but I do have my work set before me and I can continue to knead and slap and pull and add just a dash more until I get it right. Until excellence emerges from the quotidian and catches me by surprise.

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