Rethinking the Holidays

Zoom holidays

Photo illustration by Mark Riechers. Original images by Visuals, Kraken Images, Enrique Macias, Freestocks, and Claudio Schwarz. (CC0)

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Original Air Date: 
November 28, 2020

We’re in the holiday season of the worst pandemic of our lives. Canceling our gatherings is the safe thing to do. But, how can we still — creatively and safely — connect with the people we love? Maybe there are some opportunities for us this year, too.

A Zoom holiday is just one option for re-thinking how you celebrate this year.

Priya Parker challenges us to question why we have certain traditions, and to be open to creating new ones that fit this unusual holiday time.

The Illustrated London News's illustration of the Christmas Truce
Sonic Sidebar

In 1914, over the week leading up to Christmas day, the opposing troops sang carols to each other, played ball and exchanged gifts, in spite of their generals’ wishes. Historian Stanley Weintraub says that the Christmas Truce was a one-time-only event.

A close up image of delicious-looking bread.

Brother Peter Reinhart has devoted his entire life to nurturing matters of the soul. His spiritual path has led him to the comforting ritual of baking bread.

an illustration of a knight in armor

Every year, at holiday time, "H is for Hawk" author Helen Macdonald reads this tale of a boy who finds out he's one of the "old ones," part of a series from author Susan Cooper. She says it reconnects her with a sense of wonder inspired by what might lurk beneath the surface of the seen world.

Thank you notes for the nurses and doctors in Wuhan, China.

In Japan, there is a name for extreme gratitude — Naikan. Gregg Krech is dedicated to the practice, and he thinks holidays should be less about running around making everything perfect and more about inner reflection.


Show Details 📻
November 28, 2020
November 27, 2021
Historian (1929-2019)
Baking Instructor and Writer
Helen MacDonald
Author and Naturalist
Director, ToDo Institute
Full Transcript 📄

Anne Strainchamps (00:06):

Happy holidays everyone and welcome to celebrations that'll be kind of different.

Priya Parker (00:16):

My stepfather recently turned 80. Pre-COVID, we had thought we were going to do an in-person gathering with multiple adult families, and then we couldn't.

Anne Strainchamps (00:27):

It's To The Best of Our Knowledge. I'm Anne Strainchamps and this is Priya Parker.

Priya Parker (00:32):

What we ended up doing was 9:00 a.m., we all simultaneously turned on our FaceTime or Zoom and we baked gingersnap cookies together. We chose a simple recipe that he loved. He loves ginger. But the two-year-old and the 16-year-old would enjoy eating afterwards. And we rolled together. We put in the sugar together, we spilled the sugar on the floor together, we swept it up together, all in our own homes, and it was enough. It was an hour. And then in the evening, the adults without the children had a Zoom dinner together, but kind of had a progressive. So, with one adult family, they had their first bread and glass of wine, and then we then had our slot and we joined them at that time, and then the third part of the meal, a different adult child with her family joined and they had a nice conversation. And then we all joined back to sing, sing "Happy Birthday."

Speaker 3 (01:51):

Yay. [inaudible 00:01:52] everybody.

Anne Strainchamps (02:18):

Like all our rituals this year, birthdays, graduations, funerals, this holiday season will be different. Keeping everybody safe will mean sacrificing a few things, like the annual cookie swap, the carol sing, the neighborhood Hanukkah party. We'll wear those ugly Christmas sweaters at home this year and visit Santa Claus on Zoom. So, we're just going to have to get creative. I mean, this could be one of the most meaningful holidays ever. Priya Parker is the author of The Art of Gathering and host of The New York Times podcast Together Apart. When we started working on this show about re-thinking the holidays, she was the first person we wanted to hear from. Shannon Henry Kleiber caught up with Priya Parker at her home in New York.

Shannon Henry Kleiber (03:16):

Priya, the last time we talked, it was all about how to gather in person in more meaningful ways. And now, the world has shifted. We can't see relatives. We can't go to church. Our kids aren't in school. Everything is upended and we're heading towards this holiday season. What's it going to be like?

Priya Parker (03:39):

The world, as you say, has shifted pretty radically and so a huge part of our opportunity, I believe, these holidays, is to pause and to ask what is it that this group of people, my people, however you define that question, need this year for this Christmas, for this Thanksgiving, for this Hanukkah. And because we have this little thing called the internet, or most of us do, there are actually radical ways to re-imagine how we still come together and have community.

Shannon Henry Kleiber (04:13):

I like that so much because some people are saying they're just going to skip Christmas this year or some other holiday, and that makes me incredibly sad. I don't want to skip the holidays. So, how can we re-think them?

Priya Parker (04:25):

I mean, the first thing I'd say is we tend to come to our holidays with this kind of assumption and veneer, even pre-COVID, that the holidays are a happy, wonderful time.

Shannon Henry Kleiber (04:36):


Priya Parker (04:36):

And that's always come with a big asterisk. The holidays can be a really beautiful time and it can also be a complicated time. So, we've always had to figure out how we want to be together.

Shannon Henry Kleiber (04:46):

Mm-hmm (affirmative)-

Priya Parker (04:47):

The first thing is to think about what is your need as an individual. Is it to feel safe? Is it to feel connected? Is it, given the chaos and the disruption of the year, to come hell or high water, do the same thing you've done every year with the same people, just maybe virtually?

Shannon Henry Kleiber (05:05):

Mm-hmm (affirmative)-

Priya Parker (05:06):

And then, who is the inner circle that you may want to be with or that you are committed to or who you are responsible for? And then, what does that small group need? And then... There's like building blocks. And then, to go to the larger system, whether it's the larger family or groups of friends and say, "Hey. This is what we're going to do this year." Either, "We love you and we'll see you next year," or "Would you like to join?" And then to think about how could you... Whether it's physically in person or outside or online, what are the rituals that you want to invent this year?

Shannon Henry Kleiber (05:37):

Mm-hmm (affirmative)-

Priya Parker (05:38):

This might be a year to say, "Let's just center joy." And we won't spend three days together because we can't. So, how might we, over two hours, do something together that may not actually involve conversation? Maybe it's sync-watching a favorite joyful movie together. Maybe it's singing together. Everyone on mute. I mean, I know families who are doing all types of activities together because you can... You kind of... You know, after a while you kind of run out of conversation, and maybe the way to actually be together is to live-stream your kitchen starting at 10:00 a.m.

Shannon Henry Kleiber (06:13):

Mm-hmm (affirmative)-

Priya Parker (06:14):

What if this year, actually the preparation you do together and you eat apart?

Shannon Henry Kleiber (06:18):

Those kinds of things are what I'm thinking about with my family. I know we'll make some of the same traditional dishes and maybe watch the same traditional movies, but there are other things we won't be able to do. Go to live performances like The Nutcracker that we usually do. But I'm thinking maybe we can go on a snowshoe hike or something like that.

Priya Parker (06:38):

Absolutely. And I love the example of, "Okay, if we can't see The Nutcracker this year, for a lot of different reasons...". Here's the sequence of questions to ask yourself. Well, why do we go to The Nutcracker? What do you love about it? Is it the wonder that it brings? Is it the respect for these dancers' bodies? Is it the power of story? Is it the festive nature? And really begin to actually unfurl with your family why is it that we love this thing. You know, I'll give a simple example. I live sort of near a very cold lake and it's getting colder and colder and colder and for my birthday this year, I also wanted much of maybe what you want out of The Nutcracker, but a sense of doing something courageous with the people that I love in a safe way. And for me, I'm kind of Zoomed out.

Shannon Henry Kleiber (07:27):


Priya Parker (07:28):

I invited a few friends to jump in a very cold lake and we did a polar bear swim.

Shannon Henry Kleiber (07:34):

Oh, that's great.

Priya Parker (07:35):

It's not rocket science, but it does take thought. And again, it's like, what is it that you need or want this year? Is it a sense of protection? Is it a sense of courage? Is it a sense of possibility? Is it a sense of grace? Is it a sense of repair? Is it a sense of mourning loss?

Shannon Henry Kleiber (07:52):

I think what you bring up about religion is really interesting because we have to come up with new ways of being spiritual now, too, because we can't always gather in synagogues and churches and physical spaces. So, how are we spiritual and how can we challenge ourselves to be spiritual in a different way?

Priya Parker (08:13):

I think some of the most interesting conversations happening about re-imagining gathering are happening within churches, particularly with ministers, men and women, who are asking how do we do this now? All of the ways, at least currently in a virus environment, are super-spreader activities, right? Singing. Singing collectively. Passing a bowl around. Shaking hands. And they're also, ironically, part of the social glue of communities, right? The physical touch. And so, I think some of the most powerful questions at the center of every institution... Harvard University, for the first time collectively and systematically, allowed dissertation students to defend their theses, their Ph.D.s, over Zoom.

Priya Parker (08:59):

I have a podcast with The New York Times called Together Apart and one of the episodes, we follow this poet and writer named Clint Smith. He did his dissertation defense this spring at his kitchen table with the proctors or judges on all of their kitchen tables around wherever they were on the East Coast. And then his grandfather, in his nineties in New Orleans, sipping from a plastic blue Solo cup, was watching his grandson defend his thesis, and along with 150 other of his friends and family on muted Zoom. Right? What does it do when a community can not just celebrate and toast you outside, but come into the corridors of academia?

Priya Parker (09:43):

The core way that we are coming together is being interrupted, and so we all need to pay attention to see... Maybe some of this is working better. Maybe this is becoming more democratic or maybe this is totally chaotic. But it is a moment of radical questioning.

Shannon Henry Kleiber (10:01):

I do know so many people have lost loved ones this year and also have not had the collective grieving, and the holidays are going to be harder in some ways because of that. What do you think people can do to say goodbye over the holidays, and maybe even in a community setting?

Priya Parker (10:20):

Yeah, it's... I think this is such an important question. I think that one of the things we need so much more of is opportunities to collectively grieve, to publicly grieve. In many countries... I'm half Indian and in many countries, including in India and Nigeria and Pakistan, there's a public norm for grief. Funerals are processions and not just for heads of state, for anybody. And in the U.S., so much of grief has become privatized. It's become non-imposing. And I think both because of COVID and then with the racial uprisings, with our elections, our civic fabric has been torn.

Shannon Henry Kleiber (10:58):

Mm-hmm (affirmative)-

Priya Parker (10:59):

And I think just philosophically, whether you are a neighbor or whether you are part of a church or a temple or whether you are part of a local library, to one, just think about creative ways, and it doesn't always have to be verbal, to come together and have a lighting ceremony for all we've lost this year and everybody bring a candle and you walk. And this is just one experiment, but these two women who are based out of New York City... One is Lily Baldwin and the other is Janet Wong. They came together, kind of out of the same question that you're asking, which is how do we set up experiments for communities to remember and to experience loss? And Lily creates these experiences on Zoom that you can sign up for and they have an Instagram account and everything. But some of the questions to remember the specificity of the person that you lost. I'll just read some of them.

Priya Parker (11:49):

Describe their version of a bad hair day. Describe their silhouette. What was the quality of light when you first met? What were you wearing the last time you saw them? And what did you do right after that moment? What did they forget when they just didn't care? And what did they do that nobody else did?

Shannon Henry Kleiber (12:19):

Those are beautiful.

Priya Parker (12:20):

Aren't they beautiful? They make me weepy.

Shannon Henry Kleiber (12:23):

Right. And do you think some people also want to say goodbye to this time?

Priya Parker (12:29):

Absolutely. And I think... To go to New Year's, I think there's a power and to think about ways that you can create a small ritual, either alone... I mean, [inaudible 00:12:37] yourself or with others to say goodbye to 2020. I could see, for example, when this vaccine finally comes, creating powerful rituals of getting a vaccine, like [inaudible 00:12:48] and this is also an opportunity for doctors and hospitals and neighborhood groups. Can you imagine going and coming out and everyone clapping or everyone cheering? Or coming out and having a collective hug? Right? I think there's deep power in leaving the before state and coming into the after state. Getting this vaccine isn't just... I mean, if it works, it's not just getting a shot in your arm. It's leaving an isolated state and rejoining a together state.

Priya Parker (13:14):

So then, what are the rituals that we can create? Simple, simple civic rituals. The same way during COVID we began to see in certain neighborhoods in New York City and around the world in Italy, people at 6:00 p.m., 7:00 p.m. coming out and clapping for our first responders. That's a civic ritual. So, part of this is we need family and community rituals, but I'm also... I think we have a dearth of collective, civic, fabric-mending rituals.

Shannon Henry Kleiber (13:40):

It's so interesting to hear how you think about look at your tradition and what do you love about it, what do you miss about it, and then how to make that into something else in this day.

Priya Parker (13:51):

Every tradition that people adore comes from some moment in time. Passover hit maybe three weeks, a month after COVID. And as I was speaking with Jewish leaders during that moment, one of them, Amichai Lau-Lavie, pointed out to me that Passover was a radical invention when 2,000 years ago the Romans destroyed a temple and the Jews couldn't physically gather in the way they used to gather because there was literally no temple, right? You invent based on the need in front of you and then if it continues to be a need for other people after you, they will either take it on or then change what you invented to suit them.

Anne Strainchamps (14:44):

That was writer Priya Parker talking with Shannon Henry Kleiber. Priya hosts the Together Apart podcast and she's the author of The Art of Gathering. I'm Anne Strainchamps. It's To The Best of Our Knowledge from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX.

Anne Strainchamps (15:08):

We're not the first generation to celebrate a holiday in the midst of trauma. The late historian Stanley Weintraub wrote an entire book about World War I and the Christmas truce on the Western front. December 1914. Rain. Mud. Gunfire. British and German snipers fired at each other all day long. At night, they snuck out to collect the corpses. Troops on both sides were dug into their trenches, and then the Germans did something totally unexpected.

Stanley Weintraub (16:00):

They put up Christmas trees with candles clamped on them. They came ready-made with candles already clamped. And singing Christmas songs like Silent Night, they gathered around the trees and they lit them, and this was of course hazardous. Some of them were shot down immediately. But pretty soon, the British on the other side recognized the Christmas carols, and Silent Night was the same song in each language. It was a German song adopted by the British. And soon the British were singing Christmas carols too. Before long, the troops began crawling under the barbed wire in no man's land to the other side, the British in particular because they wanted to see those Christmas trees up close.

Stanley Weintraub (17:10):

And then the two sides met in no man's land, and this of course was spontaneous and illegal. Fraternization, in fact, was considered treason and punishable by death. But they became friendly. They exchanged presents in the darkness and they decided, "Let's meet again as daylight comes on Christmas Day." But they realized as they gathered in the darkness, the number of dead that cluttered the area was so great that they decided, "We couldn't really get together in daylight unless we first remove the corpses."

Stanley Weintraub (18:06):

And so, at Christmas Day dawn, they buried the dead with due ceremony, very moving individual ceremonies. Both sides did this and they helped each other. It wasn't that they just picked out their own men and took them aside to bury. As they were doing it, they realized that we've cleared a space, a space in which we can not only fraternize, but said some of the Scots, "Why don't we play football?" And the friendliness continued in sharing food, sharing rations, sharing the plethora of plum puddings and sausages and so on. The Germans even rolled over barrels of beer across no man's land to the British, who had no beer. It was a fantastic situation and it was contagious. It didn't happen just in one place. It spread up and down the line.

Stanley Weintraub (19:16):

The British and the German generals were in chateaus or hotels far behind the lines. They didn't know quite what was going on, but they kept getting weird reports of what was happening. The highest ranking man I found who participated was a British brigadier general. He visited the lines and he discovered that there was nothing he could stop. He said, "What was I to do? Order my men shot in the back?" He knew that morale couldn't stand for that. But the commanding officers had the solution. You always took troops out of the trenches and gave them a rest and put in fresh troops. In both sides, they did that. They put in troops who had no involvement in the war, who had not yet learned to like the enemy. They hated the enemy because they were indoctrinated to do so.

Stanley Weintraub (20:14):

And so, fresh troops came in on both sides and gradually the war began again. And the war began, in some cases, with some striking bits of chivalry. A German officer would approach a British one and say, "We have been ordered to shoot again. We're going to fire into the air." And the British officer would say, "Once you begin firing, we'll fire into the air to let you know that we understand and the war will have to start again." The troops who had not been involved had no trouble going to war. But those who had been involved wrote home to their parents, to their wives, to their girlfriends, letters of great wonder. "Mother, you won't believe what happened to me. You won't believe how we celebrated Christmas."

Anne Strainchamps (22:31):

That was the [inaudible 00:22:32] story and Stanley Weintraub, author of Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce.

Anne Strainchamps (22:49):

There are a lot of ways to celebrate the holidays and one way is with food. In my family, Christmas morning means stollen, this rich German egg bread that's loaded with raisins and nuts and candied fruit and covered in white icing. I make mine the night before. I use my mother's recipe, which might have been her mother's. Stollen is a Christmas tradition that goes back supposedly to the Council of Trent in 1545. But there are a lot of traditional holiday breads, which is good news if you've been baking your way through the pandemic. So, while you're getting out the flour and yeast, I thought we could revisit my conversation with baking guru Peter Reinhart on the deeper meaning of bread.

Peter Reinhart (23:36):

Bread has always been a symbol in all cultures, not just the Judeo-Christian culture, but worldwide, a symbol of life and it's a symbol of connectedness to something larger than ourselves. I think when people are able to tap into that, they themselves become connected to this rich tradition and it actually enriches them.

Anne Strainchamps (23:56):

What do you mean bread is a symbol for explaining life?

Peter Reinhart (24:02):

Well, there's a lot of ways to tap into it. You can look at it historically and recognize that, of course, breads are always at the center of almost every religious celebration. For instance, the Passover ritual of the Seder has the matzah as one of the key symbols. It's not the only symbol, but it's a key symbol. Most of the Christian traditions... If you go to Italy, for instance, almost every day somewhere in Italy is a feast day of a particular saint because every town has a patron saint, and so there's almost a festival every day there. And at every festival, you will find a particular bread, whether it's a San Giuseppe bread named after St. Joseph or if it's a panettone, the Christmas bread that's filled with fruits and nuts. There's always a bread there.

Anne Strainchamps (24:41):

Well, and the Christian Mass centers around the host.

Peter Reinhart (24:45):

Absolutely. There is sort of your ultimate symbol of bread as the body of God. And then these other, I would say celebration breads, are shadings or variations coming off of that central theme.

Anne Strainchamps (24:59):

But what is it about bread, do you think? I mean, why? Why does bread...? Why have we made bread into the symbol for the body of God?

Peter Reinhart (25:06):

I look at bread as these four basic ingredients: flour, water, salt and then yeast. Well, when you start with just the flour, water and salt, what you've got is clay. You mix that together and you've made some kind of a clay. You've taken something that was once alive, wheat. You've killed it and ground it up into a flour and you've formed it together with water and salt and made a clay. When it is injected with leaven, and most leavens in bread are yeast... When you put that leaven into the bread, well, the word "leaven" itself, the root word for leaven is enliven.

Anne Strainchamps (25:37):


Peter Reinhart (25:37):

To bring to life or to vivify. So, what we've just done as a bread baker or even as a person just eating bread, we've participated in a drama in which we have taken something that was once alive, then is dead. We've brought it back to life.

Anne Strainchamps (25:51):

We've resurrected it.

Peter Reinhart (25:52):

Exactly. A resurrectional principle at work here. Now, what do we we do? When we mix the dough and we've injected it with the leaven, we've brought it to life and so we've effected a transformation, and this transformation actually shows up in wine-making and in beer-making. In other words, in fermentation foods, there's often a transformation. So, it's no coincidence, for instance, that wine would also be a central symbol in the Christian drama. I caution people to say that first you have to enjoy the bread for what it is. All the symbolic renderings that we love to poetically rhapsodize about it are wonderful musings, but they're not necessarily that critical to somebody who's looking for something to nourish themselves with, good tasting bread.

Anne Strainchamps (26:32):

But if you want to go richer... I mean, if you want to go deeper into the subject and you want to enrich your experience of bread, then you can think about it in this sort of mythic, spiritual way.

Peter Reinhart (26:44):

Exactly. And I think that is one of the reasons why bread is so special in its simplicity. It is the staff of life. It is central as foodstuff, not just as a spiritual stuff, in society because it does seem to work on many levels, whether we think about those levels or not. They seem to touch us. And I'll tell you one thing. If you ever meet somebody who can't eat bread, for instance, somebody with celiac disease who's allergic to gluten, all they think about is bread. And people who come from bread-rich cultures like France or Italy or Greece, bread is so important to them. If you take away their bread, they get anxious. They have anxiety attacks if they can't get their bread.

Peter Reinhart (27:21):

So, it does seem to work on all these levels and I think when things work on many levels, you have to ask yourself the question, why does it work? And that opens up a whole door of exploration that will enrich you if you follow that thread.

Anne Strainchamps (27:35):

I also think there's something just at a visceral level that's really magical and mysterious about bread baking. And for me, it's the moment when you take the dough that you've mixed up, and when you're kneading it, there's a moment when it kind of starts to come alive. You know?

Peter Reinhart (27:50):


Anne Strainchamps (27:51):

When you take this inert mass begins to develop this elasticity and eventually it springs back when you touch it. And you put it in the bowl later and it grows. It gets big. And I just think any woman who's ever been pregnant and watched her belly grow and fill with a child will have that same kind of visceral feeling that something magic is going on here.

Peter Reinhart (28:12):

I agree and there is these sort of magical moments in the process. When the dough comes alive, as you said, there's actually a physical explanation for it and understanding the physical explanation doesn't necessarily diminish that magical quality as well. In fact, magic and physical reality sort of have to work together in order for the magic to be even real. And what happens is, is that the gluten that is lying in potential in the flour, because there's no real gluten in flour. There's just two proteins that when they are hydrated with water, they swell up, they bond together and they create gluten. That gluten is actually being made under your hands as you're kneading the bread or in the machine as you're mixing the bread. The gluten is coming together, and when it bonds and when the gluten is actually formed, the bread changes physically and you feel it come to life.

Peter Reinhart (29:04):

At the same time, the yeast that you've put in is activating, and so in reality, this lump of clay has come to life and it sort of coincides with the developing of the gluten. All of these things come together at this moment and you can feel it. A good, sensitive bread maker or anybody, even a home enthusiast, can feel that moment when the bread comes to life and it comes to life in your hands.

Anne Strainchamps (29:29):

You write in one of your books that there are two things you try to impress on your students when you have five weeks to teach them the art of bread baking, and they struck me as lessons about bread baking, but also as fairly powerful life lessons.

Peter Reinhart (29:43):

Mm-hmm (affirmative)-

Peter Reinhart (29:44):

It's interesting because when you are passionate about anything, and it doesn't have to be bread, but anybody who's passionate about the things that they do, as they try to convey or transmit that passion, all sorts of other things get transmitted with it, and so we do call them life lessons because how can you be excellent at anything if you don't go deeply into it? If you just sort of skim the surface, you can be good. If you have natural ability, you can be good. But can you tap into the full potential of yourself?

Peter Reinhart (30:14):

So, in trying to teach students how to pull the full potential of flavor from flour, we're also really trying to teach them how to pull the full potential of their own life, of their soul, into their life. And they find out some other things about themselves and they can perhaps, if we're lucky, and not every student gets there, they realize that they do have a passion for what they're doing and that strikes a fire for their passion for life. And if we can just hit that fire once, then pretty much the rest takes care of itself.

Anne Strainchamps (30:45):

Hmm. That's lovely.

Peter Reinhart (30:47):

It's a wonderful experience. I've found that the grace of my own life of being able to go from kind of a ministry mode into a food and business mode back into a communication mode, that it's led me into teaching, has helped to complete my circle. And I find a tremendous satisfaction, the same satisfaction from making a fine loaf of bread, now I've transferred into my real life's mission is to infuse my students with the same kind of love and passion that I try to bring to my bread baking approaches.

Anne Strainchamps (31:15):

So, if I want to, next time I pick up a piece of bread, bring to it the kind of richness and depth that you've talked about, is there a vocabulary or a way of tasting and paying attention to bread? I mean, what do you look for when you're tasting bread?

Peter Reinhart (31:33):

That's a great question. Let's just keep it at that surface level of just the taste because it has to start there. In culinary schools, we tell the students that flavor rules. In other words, it doesn't matter how beautiful anything looks. It doesn't matter how much you know about the history of it. If it doesn't taste great, then you're dead in the water. So, let's look at what makes bread great, and one of those things, of course, is balance of flavors. In a classic simple French bread, and anyone who's listening, if you can get your hands on a good French bread and maybe also get your hands on sort of an average French bread, one that you might buy in the supermarket, and taste the difference.

Peter Reinhart (32:09):

They're made from the same ingredients and ultimately, as you're chewing the bread, you'll first probably taste a little bit of the saltiness on the sides of your palate, and as you're chewing it and chewing it more in your own mouth, enzymes, your salivic enzymes mix with the bread. You're going to release more and more of the sweetness, so you'll taste some sweetness. And then when you swallow the bread, try not to eat anything for a few minutes and notice how long the flavor and the pleasure of that flavor stays in your palate. Almost with every breath, you can almost re-experience that taste. That's complexity. When that happens, you go, "Hey, I didn't know this was possible because that's not what I grew up with." And when you have that experience, the experience of tasting something on another level than you've ever tasted before, that is what we call a culinary awakening and that's the process that's so exciting to watch in our culinary students.

Anne Strainchamps (32:56):

And you just gave us another really powerful life lesson. There it is. How to get the best out of life just in learning how to eat a piece of bread.

Peter Reinhart (33:05):

I love bread for that reason.

Anne Strainchamps (33:19):

Peter Reinhart is a baking instructor at Johnson and Wales University. He's the co-founder of Brother Juniper's Bakery in Sonoma, California and author of a bunch of books, including the James Beard Award-winning cookbook The Bread Baker's Apprentice.

Anne Strainchamps (33:39):

Coming up, another way to celebrate the holidays when you're together apart. Read a book. Writer Helen Macdonald has just the thing, after this. I'm Anne Strainchamps. To The Best of Our Knowledge comes to you from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX.

Anne Strainchamps (34:01):

Every winter, my father and I both re-read the same magical children's book. It's set in the English countryside during the holiday season and it draws on Celtic mythology. I've loved this book for years and I just discovered that one of my favorite writers does too.

Helen Macdonald (34:20):

Hello. My name's Helen Macdonald. I'm the author of H Is For Hawk and I want to recommend a 1973 children's book called The Dark Is Rising by the author Susan Cooper. This funny thing happens in England every year. A whole bunch of friends of mine, on the winter solstice we all read this book. It's a book about magic. You know, anyone who's read Harry Potter will know that there is a long history of books about small boys when they're about 10 or 11 realizing that they're not normal, that they have magical powers. And this is one of the early books in that kind of tradition and it's about a small boy called Will who wakes up on his 11th birthday to discover that he is, in fact, one of the old ones and his job is to protect the world against the forces of darkness.

Helen Macdonald (35:13):

This all sounds very, very cliché, but my goodness. I cannot recommend this book more highly. It's one of the most beautifully written fantasy books I have ever come across. It made the English landscape sing for me as a child. It's full of snowy woods. It's full of Arthurian legend. It's full of Anglo-Saxon myths. It's full of everyday life. There are the most astonishing sequences which brim with eerie power of... You know, the small boy who has the power to light fires out of dead wood he sees lying on paths and the panic as he realizes that, for some reason, he cannot put them out. You know, when you're small, you're prey to fears. You're prey to panics in a way that I think disappear as you get older. Whenever I read this book, there's all kind of panics about our place in the world and the limits of our powers come back bright as ever.

Helen Macdonald (36:08):

And it's also a very poignant book. There are characters in here who suffer. There are characters who are caught out of time. And the whole thing is also about how we see the past in the landscape, and this has been very influential for me. When you look at the landscape, wherever you are in the world, it's very fascinating to try and imagine who stood there before you, and this book plays with that sense and plays with the stories we've told about the [inaudible 00:36:32] we live. And also, it's got kind of really cool things that you find in fantasy books. You know, Will has to collect a series of very important things of power. Again, very Potter-like.

Helen Macdonald (36:43):

And the whole book itself is part of a much wider series that deals with this great fight between the dark and the light, and you can't mess around with that, you know, as a topic. So, I really recommend you go out and buy this book and I really hope you'll love it as much as I do.

Anne Strainchamps (37:07):

The book is The Dark Is Rising by Susan Cooper, and that was Helen Macdonald, author of H Is For Hawk and Vesper Flights.

Anne Strainchamps (37:20):

Did you know that in Japan, there's a word for extreme gratitude? Naikan. And in Middlebury, Vermont there is a retreat center dedicated to its practice. It's run by Gregg Krech. When he and Steve talked about naikan a few years ago, his advice for the holidays was to stop running around trying to make everything perfect and use the time instead for inner reflection. This seems like good year to revisit that idea.

Gregg Krech (37:51):

I think what I'm trying to suggest is that we look for a way to find special meaning in this holiday. We have... Most of us in Western society have such busy lives that we don't set aside any time for self-reflection or quiet reflection, stepping back from our life. And here's this one day that's set aside for a day of thanks and what do we do? We make it into another busy day and we rush around cooking and trying to get everything together and cleaning the house and having everybody come over and then the TV is on and people are reading the newspaper and we still don't have any time for quiet self-reflection and really being able to think about the things in the world that are supporting our life.

Steve Paulson (38:30):

It's always struck me, is that's the paradox of holidays, especially when you're hosting a gathering, is it does take a lot of time and effort to put it on, to get everything clean, to get the food ready. But of course, then the other side of it is that you can create a wonderful space, a wonderful atmosphere that other people can enjoy. But you kind of have to pay for it.

Gregg Krech (38:53):

What we try to do is to just simply set aside a period of about 20 minutes before we eat the meal for everybody to go off into their own space in a corner of a room or sit in a particular chair and just do some quiet reflection on the past year. And we made some suggestions for exercises that people could do, but you could really do anything. One of those exercises was to simply make a list of all of the things that you've received this past year that have been really important to you and even at a very simple level, like having a home and having heat in your home and having a roof on the house that keeps you from getting wet. And just make a long as list as possible.

Gregg Krech (39:31):

And then during the dinner, we had people just go around and talk a little bit about what was on their list, and it just created such a different environment in terms of gratitude and people recognizing how blessed their life was in so many ways.

Steve Paulson (39:44):

You're really talking about a different mindset. You're trying to get us out of the, I guess what you could call the culture of complaint, and move into another arena, really. The culture of gratitude.

Gregg Krech (39:57):

Our life is very much shaped by our attention if you think about our experience of life. If we come home at the end of the day and someone says, "Well, how was your day?" And we start reading off a litany of complaints about what broke and what didn't work and this person said something mean to me and this person cut me off on the highway. By the time we finish that, our experience is this has been a terrible day and I can't wait till it's over and thank goodness it's time to go to sleep. But when we do that, it's not because it really was a terrible day. It's because that's what we've paid attention to, and the fact that the coffeemaker worked or that the telephones worked and the computer worked and maybe our daughter came up to us and gave us a big hug when we came home from work...

Gregg Krech (40:40):

And because we don't pay much attention to those things and we focus on the problems, our experience becomes that life is just full of problems and I think it's very much reinforced as soon as you pick up a newspaper or turn on the television set and the news is mostly about all the tragedies and difficulties in the world. But the cost of that is really our attitude, that we end up really taking things for granted and neglecting to appreciate all the things in our life that are really supporting us and helping to give us a good life.

Steve Paulson (41:10):

So, you're talking about saying thanks to inanimate objects, and you write about this in your book Naikan, basically being grateful for the toaster, the toilet, the mirror over the sink, all the stuff that we take utterly for granted. You're saying we should thank them.

Gregg Krech (41:26):

It's a wonderful way to shift our attention. I spent some time in Southeast Asia working in refugee camps where, when you had to use the bathroom, there was basically a pit toilet, and anybody who's been camping knows what that experience is like. But I remember getting back from Southeast Asia and the first day that I was back, going to the bathroom and flushing the toilet with this handle, and just the sense of awe and surprise that I could just pull this little lever down and suddenly all the waste products that I didn't really want around had disappeared and there was this nice, clean water that had replaced it. And it took a certain amount of deprivation, of not having that available to me, to make me really appreciate it.

Gregg Krech (42:07):

And I think that, unfortunately, that's the sequence of things for most of us, that we have these things in our life, including people, who we really don't appreciate until those things or those people are gone and then we suddenly realize how much we miss them. And wouldn't it be nice if we can turn that around and really appreciate those things and those people, including toilets and socks and mirrors and our car starting and the lines in the middle of the road when we're driving to work that keep everybody in their lanes. Wouldn't it be nice if we could appreciate those while they're still there and not wait until they're gone?

Steve Paulson (42:38):

Are you saying we should actually say thanks to these inanimate objects?

Gregg Krech (42:42):

I think it's a good exercise. If you look at other cultures, it's not that unusual. I think in our Judeo-Christian culture, it may sound very strange, for instance, to say thank you to a pair of socks, for example. But if you look at other cultures, it's actually much more common in Native American culture and certain Asian cultures to see inanimate objects or things as having a particular spirit or nature and showing appreciation for those things. But whether or not you believe that, the actual act of saying thanks and expressing appreciation affects you. There's a little exercise that we do in some of the training that we do called garbage, and every time you're about to throw something away, you just pause for a second and you just say thank you to the garbage you're about to throw away.

Gregg Krech (43:28):

So, for example, I have a little wrapper here from a lozenge that I had in my mouth earlier and that wrapper kept that lozenge fresh for me and for who knows how long. And so, by mentioning thank you to that wrapper before I toss it into the garbage, it brings my awareness to the fact that this was an object that actually helped me and supported me in some way, which, as I do that throughout the day, really affects my attitude about my life and what kind of day I'm having.

Steve Paulson (43:55):

You're really suggesting that if you make a point of saying thanks, you're going to have a more positive attitude. If you do the behavior, a certain mindset will follow and you're going to be happier.

Gregg Krech (44:09):

There are essentially three things that I think keep us from really experiencing gratitude in our life, and one of those things is a sense of expectation. For example, you go into your bedroom and you turn on the light switch and you have an expectation that the light is going to go on. And of course it goes on and so you don't pay much attention to it and you don't feel much gratitude for it. But when something happens in our life, particularly something pleasant or good that we don't expect, that tends to be what stimulates gratitude. We win the lottery or we get a nice phone call from an old friend or someone sends us a check for some money that they owed us from 20 years ago and we'd forgotten about. When things like that happen, we have gratitude because we don't expect them. So, one thing we can do is to try to figure out ways to essentially not expect things and therefore respond to them in much more of a surprising way. Surprise and gratitude are very connected.

Gregg Krech (45:02):

A second thing that I think keeps us from experiencing gratitude is too much self-preoccupation, too much self-focused attention. And the third area, which is an interesting area, is a sense of entitlement. If you feel that you're entitled to something, you can't really receive it as a gift. It's only when you have a sense that you're not entitled to something that this sense of something being a gift and therefore feeling grateful for it can occur.

Steve Paulson (45:27):

Boy, that last one is a tough one for Americans because in some ways, we live in this culture of entitlement, especially given all the materialism around us.

Gregg Krech (45:37):

Well, I think it is and I think it goes very much against the grain of a lot of the self-esteem movement in the last couple of decades. The recognition of my own limitations and my own faults and my own mistakes really humbles me and it's really that state of humility that... That sense that I'm really not entitled to having good healthy food today and I'm not entitled to a car that works all the time and I'm not entitled to having a beautiful, loving wife and a wonderful daughter. And it's the sense that I'm not entitled to those things that allows me to keep seeing them day in and day out with a sense of gratitude for them.

Steve Paulson (46:16):

In your book, you write about one example where a woman came to you and she was really angry. Things just hadn't gone right for her that day. The parking attendant had been late. Her car had been locked up in the lot, so she couldn't get out, and by the time she got to you, she was pretty ticked off. Can you describe how you counseled her?

Gregg Krech (46:36):

Well, I gave her an exercise, and the exercise was to bake some cookies for the parking lot attendant and give it to him the following day. And of course, she was just outraged.

Steve Paulson (46:45):

That's the last thing she wanted to do.

Gregg Krech (46:47):

That was. I mean, she was ready to wring his neck. But the reality of the situation was that she'd been parking in that lot for years. He's been the attendant in that lot for years. There's never been any problem with her car, and now in this one incident, she comes in late when the lot's really closed and he kind of hassles her about that. And of course, all of her attention and all of her focus is on that single incident. What's not being taken into account is the seven or eight hundred times when she's had her car perfectly cared for and watched and taken care of.

Steve Paulson (47:20):

Did she bake him some cookies?

Gregg Krech (47:22):

She did and she did give him cookies, and he was extremely surprised. And this is an assignment... I could tell you probably 20 stories like this. But one of the neat things about it is that it turns conflict around. When you are in a conflict with somebody and there's that tension and there's that stress and you approach that person with a sense of appreciation for what they've done for you in the past, it's a wonderful way of reconciliation, to try to really think about stepping back from this zoom lens that you've fallen into, where you're zoomed in on one particular problem, and taking a wide angle view.

Steve Paulson (47:57):

It strikes me that what you're talking about, what you're describing, is a spiritual practice. But you're not using religious vocabulary here, and I guess I'm wondering how far you would go with this as something that, I don't know, connects you to something transcendental.

Gregg Krech (48:14):

Well, I think that self-reflection works on a number of different levels and clearly one of those levels, I think, is at a spiritual level. And one of my teachers in Japan who was a priest said that self-reflection is not religious, per se, but it can take you to the doorstep of religious experience. But the other side of that, I think, is that I believe there's a point at which, when we realize how life has supported us and how much care and love we've received, it really opens us up to a whole different understanding of faith and of God and of spiritual experience. And we may begin to see that we don't receive those things in our life because we've earned them or because we deserve them, but we've received them despite the fact that we haven't earned or deserved them, and I think that brings us to an open door into issues of faith and spiritual experience.

Anne Strainchamps (49:08):

That was Steve Paulson's conversation with Gregg Krech. Gregg is executive director of the ToDo Institute, a Naikan center in Middlebury, Vermont. He's the author of Naikan: Gratitude, Grace and the Japanese Art of Self-Reflection.

Anne Strainchamps (49:45):

However and wherever you celebrate your holidays this year, I want to thank you for listening to the shows we make. It's been a challenging, but also a creative time. We've had to work harder to stay connected with you and that's made us cherish the connection more than ever. In these times, when so many of us are apart, we can still share what matters to us together. That's what we try to do here every week and our inspiration is you. Thanks for being there.

Anne Strainchamps (50:22):

To The Best of Our Knowledge comes to you from Madison, Wisconsin. Shannon Henry Kleiber put this hour together for you with help from Angelo Bautista and Charles Monroe-Kane. Mark Riechers makes our digital content. Be sure to check out our website and newsletter at Our sound designer and technical director is Joe Hardtke. Our executive producer is Steve Paulson and I'm Anne Strainchamps. Until next time, be safe and be well.

Speaker 11 (51:00):


Last modified: 
November 23, 2021