Good fiction’s infused with all the senses; like Christmas morning, there’s sights and sounds, flavours and feelings, thoughts and memories. For me a wondrous childhood holiday moment was my Mother giving me a half teaspoon taste of gravy and asking my single digit self: “does it need more salt?” Perked up to my full youngster height at being cast into this new role of responsibility I’d cock my head to one side, slowly sip the stock, and pronounce my verdict. Nothing felt more empowering at that age than being asked to savour gravy and reveal my thoughts. And no gravy did I savour more, on account of its being seasoned with adding meaning, special importance. Both myself and the gravy elevated in worth and self-worth by my embracing the instant.
I was aware even then of the privilege of having a loving family where these sorts of tasting events occurred. Some of my peers had tales of holidays that mostly involved hiding in their bedrooms from the tantrums and rampages of the adults in their lives, so the conscious awareness that I was a lucky gaffer had been implanted in my mind. Yet, a recent CBC Radio interview reminds us that often the holidays are triggers toward dark memories, past years haunted by the ghosts of Christmases even further past that were unpleasant in myriad ways. What we’d all prefer, of course, is to relive that holiday haze of love and peace and goodwill betwixt family members – and leave the past in the past. And so, this episode of the radio show called Tapestry delves into the possibilities of fully tasting and wholeheartedly embracing the smallest of possible positive experiences.
The interviewee was a social psychologist named Fred Bryant; he reminds us of something that we all claim to know but forget at a moment’s notice: “happiness isn’t in things. Happiness is in the relish of things.” He asks us to engage in “sensory perceptual sharpening”, a process whereby, like a tuning fork, we learn to more deeply encounter the essence of given moment. Instead of looking at brains and chemicals Bryant’s empirical intrigues start where the real magic happens: our rational, if complex, flighty, whimsical, and dallying, metaphysical minds. What we choose to pay attention to truly can be an object of our choice, and not a miserable one either—such as an obnoxious diet fad or the effort to never be accused of micro-aggressions such as eye rolls at the family dinner table. Instead, with a simple injunction that we seek to savour life, Bryant opens a panoply of possibilities for our personal betterment.
To savour is to be aware of experiences in their details as itemized aspects of consciousness, but also as realities that are part of a forged process whereby we are actively searching for release from the stresses and strains of our lives. “Just because you’re not down doesn’t mean you’re up”, Bryant coyly intoned. Pleasantness and niceties are fine, and countless memes and bumper stickers imply that yes, we’d prefer good karma to bad and that typically dogmas loose in a back-alley encounter with karma. But deeper than ideologies and sanctimonious catch phrases, suggests Bryant, is the attainment of a larger sense of release from the deepest of modern afflictions: “hypersensitivity to hassles”.
At Christmas, more than any time of year, annoyances and frustrations can take on downright Biblical proportions. It can be enough to make you want to go sleep in a manger somewhere! Yet, when we’re aware that we want to shoot for the stars of sensitivity to enjoyments hitherto unknown, that’s when we get rolling in a positive direction on our psychological journey. Like Christmas shopping and, right when you’re feeling too bedraggled to proceed even a step further, you find the perfect gift for that beloved someone, perseverance in pursuit of pleasure is what Bryant is all about. There will always be pitfalls along the way and, if we’re honest, we know that not every Christmas can possibly be the best one ever, but the magic of savoring is in the making enjoyment a conscious goal—animated by clarity of purpose that only the simplest of goals can provide. Being happy doesn’t have to come at the expense of others, either. Nor need it be shared outside of the confines of our craniums. We can simply effectively, and in as many instants as possible, remember to remind ourselves to be here now and see what everything looks, tastes, feels, and smells like. At least one of those senses will likely yield a sense of enjoyment to the master of the machine, our mind.
A corollary here to seeing the best savoury moments in life is an acceptance that not every moment has to be perfect. Just think how much frustration is cast aside when we embrace imperfection, that bacon that got too crispy or that ornament that broke during an instant of doggie commotion. “I’ve surrendered the pressure, it’s incredibly freeing” stated football player Christian McCaffery about excelling on a team of great players rather than as the lone standout with a mediocre club. Sentiments like his can remind us, amidst the toil and hassle (loving toil, loving hassle, we know the discursive drill) of the holidays that it’s important to just relax and exhale. Mommy time means wine time to some, a doobie time out to others, but graciously, AU gives us access to potentially the most edifying pastime of all: ducking away from the fray to participate in our private enterprise of bettering our academic minds.
Savouring our scholastic journey can involve a bunch of small bites, or symbolic sips, but it also goes deeper than that. A sense of awareness of the untimed present is implied when we stop and sniff the proverbial flowers of existence. Even indoors we’re always-already right there in reality, in the cosmos, in the universe that is at once our forever home and the place that we do all of our thinking and feeling and appreciating. Yet the outdoors does beckon too, and can be a great means to the graceful end of a holiday visit.
As we mosey out under the winter stars, we can feel the fullness of existence, something that Henry David Thoreau spent much of his writing seeking to illuminate. Thoreau gives a slant on savouring the grand reality of our surroundings; here he reminds us that sometimes serenity comes not from accomplishments or even flavours but from the sheer enjoyment of things as they are. “No Yard! but unfenced Nature reaching up to your very sills: a young forest growing up under your windows, and wild sumacs and blackberry vines breaking through into your cellar; sturdy pitch-pines rubbing and creaking against the shingles for want of room, their roots reaching quite under the house. Instead of a scuttle or a blind blown off in the gale, a pine tree snapped off or torn up by the roots behind your house for fuel. Instead of no path to the front-yard gate in the Great Snow, no gate, no front-yard, and no path to the civilized world.” (Thoreau, 1854) The magic of nature is hard to beat, but along with that is the need to sometimes just leave things be. If you’re blessed with not having to leave the house for a couple days maybe try the old Thoreau method and don’t shovel snow for a day. It’s like a micro-vacation and, plus, if you want some peace and quiet, folks might think you’ve left town! Enjoying things as they are, after all, begins with letting things be.
As a boy my Dad would sometimes bring me along to his forestry job sites. And, when a lull in motion and breeze was just right, he’d say “Son, listen! Do you hear that?” The sheer silence would envelope us both and, like a library of souls immersed in the gift of learning, the miracle of nature would unfurl for our sensory enjoyment. It’s this appreciation of the goodness that’s in life, and the great privilege it is to be alive and to look not only onward to another year but inward to a sense of peace with the present, that may truly be the greatest offering that the Christmas season provides.
Happy Holidays to all and may we all remember to savour as many moments as we choose!
Bryant, F. (2023). ‘The Science of Sweetness’. CBC Radio: Tapestry. Retrieved from https://chartable.com/podcasts/tapestry-from-cbc-radio/episodes/156906006-the-science-of-sweetness and from https://amp.cbc.ca/listen/live-radio/1-59-tapestry
Thoreau, H. (1854/1995). Walden. Retrieved from the Gutenberg Library https://www.gutenberg.org/files/205/205-h/205-h.htm
Even though this one just came out in our last issue of 2023, it was a reader nomination and is a solid example of the Fly on the Wall. I’ll readily admit that Jason’s columns can be a little tricky to get through; they’re not something you approach if you’re looking for an easy-breezy read, but they’re almost always worth the consideration that they take. This one was no exception.