I had the opportunity to go to Nashville this weekend for a party, the theme of which was the "art of grilling out." Indeed, the event elevated the American summer backyard basics of coals and tongs and lighter fluid to art, with a beautifully roasted pork shoulder in a muscadine barbecue sauce, grilled bone marrow with peaches and figs, and campfire s'mores. The tables were beautifully spread with flowers, name cards and printed menus. It was pleasant to take an essential suburban pastime and play with it, making it new and beautiful again, while bringing strangers together to enjoy it all. It reminded me why it's so important to live well once and a while, instead of simply living better.
We spend a lot of time thinking about how we can live better. We pore over recipes for kale and park farther from the store to burn calories; we deep clean our homes with tips from magazines. We save ideas from Pinterest about how we can live more efficiently, healthily, frugally. We can't help but feel a little superior when we brown bag it, when we skip the morning latte to save a few dollars. These efforts give us a sense of adult purpose and effectiveness. They can keep us at healthy weights with fuller bank accounts. There's nothing wrong with trying to live better. Yet there is something to be said, too, for celebrating life to its fullest, for savoring the smallest details and singing their praises.
I've written before about how much joy and confidence it can bring to look at yourself with the eyes of an artist, and it can bring an equal amount of joy to look at all areas of your life as art, too. I don't mean in a competitive way, although the end result may be appealing to others. Living well, living life's small moments as art, can be as simple as arranging the items on your mantel in a pleasing vignette, of trying a new recipe, of stopping on the side of the highway to take in a dilapidated barn and maybe snap a photo. It's about overcoming your fears or indulging for reasons that have nothing to do with stress or getting through your day. Living well is an art humans have perfected for thousands of years and that I worry we are forgetting in these supposedly advanced modern times.
What happened to our saints' days and feast days, to our simple weddings and seasonal celebrations in the fields? The Italian peasants greet spring with a communal meal of fava beans eaten raw from the pod with salt, paired with bread, prosciutto, chilled white wine and hunks of marzolino (a young cheese made in March). It's a meal that takes a long time to eat, despite the fact it isn't cooked, because the fava bean pods must be opened one by one. But it's a meal that comes only one time of year and is a brief, precious enjoyment. In Germany, there is a similar frenzy when the first asparagus comes in—there is even a folkloric hero, the Sparglefrau, or Asparagus Woman—who presides in an almost mythological way over this annual hunger for spring produce.
The best weddings aren't about the number of guests or the bows on chairs. They're pure and true acknowledgments of everything primal and sacred and essential to us. They are about community and love and coming together, about family and tradition, about sacrifice and honor and loyalty. Almost every archetype and concept we hold most dear is encapsulated in a good wedding. We break bread together; we dance and kiss and pray. We wear our finest clothes to show that it is an important occasion. Why do we not treat other occasions as well? Why do we wait only for the biggest moment in our lives and not pay similar homage and reverence to the smallest instances? After all, every day is one of a precious numbered few.
Living well is about treating any given moment in your life as worthy of celebration. As Thoreau put it, it's about learning to "live deep and suck out all the marrow of life." This weekend, I did that literally with grilled bone marrow, good bread and summer peaches. There was no particular reason for several strangers interested in food, photography, fellowship and art to get together to eat at a gourmet cookout. It was simply a good weekend in August to savor late summer, to meet new people. There was none of the awkward small talk that often accompanies parties and networking events. Somehow, simply creating a gathering with artistic intentions made us family for a night. We sat around the fire telling stories, some funny and raunchy, some heartbreaking and eloquent. There was no shyness, no shame, no holding back until a time there was more familiar company. We were there for the marrow.
We were there for no other reason than to eat together, to talk, to engage in the ancient act of gathering by the fire to celebrate the best of life. We didn't count calories or stress about seating arrangements. We simply poured bourbon and champagne and wine, we filled our plates, and we shared pieces of the past. There was no thought of gas prices or political affiliations or planning meals to suit your coupons. There was only extra pâté on toast and wistful hugs goodbye late into the night. We would all lead happier, richer lives to have more nights like this, like the Italians have splitting spring's first fava beans and the Germans have biting into crisp asparagus. We work hard each day to engineer our lives down to a science, but perhaps we should focus more on how we can make them an art, the nurturing, celebratory art of living well. Make any given day a feast day, a saint's day, a sacred day to be glad of life, just to toast the small things.
Meghan O'Dea is a 20-something writer, pop culture critic and social media fanatic. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter if you have questions, comments or stories on being a young adult in the workforce. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.
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