40 Days: Equanimity

“To bear all naked truths,

And to envisage all circumstances, all calm,

That is the top of sovereignty.”

-John Keats, “Hyperion”

When I started teaching in an inner Houston city school, I suddenly needed large amounts of a different kind of strength.  I needed to be able to hear a student call me puta and tell me to chinga mi madre and not allow my reaction to be influenced by the anger and whatever other emotions came rising up.  I watched a custodian wipe the blood of two 6th graders off my floor with a mop, I listened as a student explained how a knife held by someone else’s hand left the scab on his neck, and I decoded gang symbols that a student had carved on his own arm in the back of my classroom.

Perspective and equanimity. A linocut by Evelyne Bouchard.

From the beginning, I’ve always been into yoga for the equanimity.  Yoga redefined strength for me.  Before, I thought strength meant being able to lift heavy things, and the strongest person was the person who could lift the heaviest things. Yelling the loudest in a classroom solves nothing.  It was through practicing yoga and teaching broken children from broken homes in a broken system that I began to understand strength as the ability to stay still for a long period of time. To stay still in a challenging yoga pose despite how much your muscles are shaking, or to stay still in a classroom when a student tells you to go fuck yourself.

A conversation with a cardiologist over Christmas break gave me a new physiological framework for this kind of strength.  He confirmed that no, yoga isn’t a cardio exercise, so it doesn’t strengthen your heart by raising your heart rate.  However, practicing yoga can increase a person’s heart rate variability.

Heart rate variability measures how quickly your heart rate can change in reaction to your environment.  Heart rates go up in response to stressors in the environment, and then they go back down again when the body understands that all is well.  In other words, if a person has high heart rate variability, and her heart rate goes up when a student threatens to shit in the skull of another student, she can quickly react from a place of logic and calm instead of anger and stress.

“If you want inner peace find it in solitude, not speed, and if you would find yourself, look to the land from which you and to which you go.”

-Stewart L. Udall, The Quiet Crisis

Comfort food is surely the food of equanimity. I believe that comfort food is forged early in a person’s life, and the food that comforts a person is sort of like a unique fingerprint that our early experiences make on us.

List of My Comfort Foods:

  1.  Grapefruit with salt
  2. Chicken and dumplings
  3. Chocolate chip cookies
  4. Homemade bread
  5. Highly sweetened fresh mint tea
  6. Curried chicken salad sandwiches
  7. Country ham and grits and red-eye gravy
  8. Soft-boiled eggs and toast
  9. Eggs Benedict
  10. Pasta with butter and dill
  11. Tattie broth
  12. Oranges
  13. Citrus of any kind, really
  14. Biscuits and tomatoes and sausage gravy
  15. Pasta salad, especially with Israeli couscous
  16. Rosemary and goat cheese
  17. Dark chocolate

Tea Brack

I’ve learned that brack is a word, a word for a food that is somewhere between a cake and a quick bread.  It’s the shortened form of “barnbrack,” which, like the recipe itself, is given to us by the Irish.  In Irish, “bairghean” means cake of bread, and “breac” means speckled.  A brack is a kind of speckled-cake bread.
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Sometimes, you just have to take your inquiries to the old Oxford English Dictionary.  At the risk of sounding unpatriotic, the American Heritage dictionary was no help at all.  The internet also failed me,  although I did learn that bracken is a kind of fern.  And I was reminded that brackish is the sort of water that mangroves grow in.

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In 1772, General Charles Vallancy wrote in his “Essay on the Antiquity of the Irish Language,”

On St. Briget’s Eve every Farmer’s Wife in Ireland makes a Cake called bairein-breac.

St. Briget probably being St. Brigid, making St. Briget’s Eve January 31st, as St. Brigid’s day is February 1st, the first day of the Celtic spring.

In 1867, a decade or so after the end of the Irish famine, Patrick Kennedy spoke of barnbracks as one of “the varieties of the staff of life” in his The Banks of Boro:  A Chronicle of the County of Wexford.

And, in 1928, the February 3rd edition of Universe tells  us:

A loaf of curious, very sweet currant bread is made and sold for All Souls Day.  Even the poorest household manages to secure one of these Barn-bracks.

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This recipe is adapted from a recipe given to me by the lovely Gillian, my friend Nigel’s mother.  Some of her original measurements are referenced at the bottom.

 

Tea Brack

You will need:

  • 1 cup black raisins*
  • 1 cup sultanas, or golden raisins
  • freshly grated zest from 1 orange and one lemon
  • 1 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar
  • 2 cups of freshly brewed black tea
  • one stick of butter at room temperature**
  • 1/4 cup chopped walnuts
  • 1 Granny Smith apple, chopped into 1/2 cubes
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 3 1/2 cups self rising flour***
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon Chinese five spice, or your favorite spice mix
  • 1/4 teaspoon grated nutmeg
  • 1/4 cup orange brandy or whiskey****

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  Put the raisins, zest, brown sugar, and black tea into a saucepan.  Stir until all the sugar has been dissolved.  Bring the mixture to a boil, and then remove from the heat.  Add the chopped apples  Allow the mixture to cool.  When the mixture has completely cooled, add the beaten egg.*****

Meanwhile, sift the flour.  Cream the flour, spices, and salt into the butter.  Add the walnuts to the dry mixture.

Add the tea mixture to the flour mixture.  Stir just until all the flour has been incorporated.  Immediately transfer the mixture into a greased 6 x 6 baking dish or pan.  Cook for 1:15-1:30, or until a knife inserted into the cake comes out clean.

 

*alternative measurements:  8 oz., or 1/2 pound

**4 oz., or 1/2 cup

*** 1 pound

**** I used Pierre Ferrand Orange Curacao, and it was wonderful.

***** Alternatively, if you’re a little short of time, you can temper the egg with the hot liquid.  Stir a teaspoon of the liquid into the beaten egg until the temperature of the egg has risen.  Continue this process until the egg is the same temperature as the mixture, then stir it in.