Gratitude with a Side of Wonder

New information…new knowledge…can be uplifting. It can cause a bubble of depression to burst, allowing fresh air to renew and rejuvenate one’s mood. Yet learning new things is not guaranteed to improve one’s state of mind. Reality can bring with it pain and trouble and seemingly endless periods of deep distress. But this is nothing new, is it? Everyone should know that joy and despair are the proceeds and prices of living. I learned something new this morning, thanks to the NPR website. Though I do not listen to NPR as often as I used to (usually, I listen in the car, but rarely at home), I try to catch up online. For example, this morning my new knowledge revolved, mostly, around art:

Memento mori is a Latin phrase meaning “remember you must die.” In the art world, “a memento mori is an artwork designed to remind the viewer of their mortality and of the shortness and fragility of human life.” Pablo Picasso’s Goat’s Skull, Bottle and Candle exemplifies momento mori art, according to one of the NPR pieces I read.

Anamorphic art is artwork that appears quite different as the viewer moves around the piece of art. The artist uses “a perspective technique that makes a distorted image of an image.” From one perspective, for example, a painting may look like a chaotic series of splashes of random color, but from another perspective may be a beautifully precise image of a portrait or a landscape or a still life…etc.

I was pleased not just to learn but to have affirmed some of my approaches to viewing works of art. Another NPR piece, How to make a meaningful connection with a work of art, offers advice on “how to view art like an expert.” Though I am no expert, I often use several of the techniques suggested in the NPR Life Kit feature. And I learned of some I have not used before.

Vanitas is defined by the Tate as “A still life artwork which includes various symbolic objects designed to remind the viewer of their mortality and of the worthlessness of worldly goods and pleasures.” Reminding us that, regardless of its religious value to the non-religious, the Bible is the source of many ideas or concepts in our world today.  Originally from the opening lines of the Book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible (‘Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities, all is vanity.’), the term is closely related to momento mori. Fascinating stuff. Mi novia sometimes expresses regret that she did not pursue education and a career in art history; I tell her it is not too late to learn.

Even heartbreaking news brings new information. News about the cause of Jimmy Buffett’s death (a rare form of skin cancer, Merkel cell carcinoma) reminded me that a talented artist died, but it also introduced me to a packet of knowledge about something to which I had not previously been exposed. And that exposure to new knowledge, that flash of illumination, triggered a brief moment of contentment that I had absorbed something new. I may not retain that knowledge for long, but while it is there and readily accessible, it is a new part of me that was not there before.

It’s a damn good thing that knowledge does not have physical weight, nor does it deliver calories. If it did, we would all be enormously heavy. And we could tell the voracious readers and scientific researchers and adventurers simply by their massive weight. Fortunately, all of us can indulge in consumption without weight gain, simply by consuming and processing information.


I wrote, not many years ago: Everything happening around us is a story waiting to be told. As far as I know, the sentence is original to me. Whether or not that is the case, I believe it is as true as any truth can be. Experiencing boredom on a train trip across miles and miles of empty prairie is a story rich in potential. Staring into the bloom of a freshly-opened flower can open the floodgates of a massive rush of imaginative ideas. All of that ideas can be traced back to that flower and the secrets it unleashed simply by being observed.  I think I am creative enough and a sufficiently capable writer to produce interesting, readable material (this blog serving as evidence to the contrary notwithstanding). But my attention span is shorter than I would like and that I would need to write what I otherwise would be capable of writing. Everything, while a story waiting to be told, cannot become a story unless it gets the amount of attention it deserves. Usually, I cannot (or I do not have the discipline to) give it that attention. The same “everything,” though, can have its story told by someone else. But that other story will not be the one I would have told. Unless I write it, my story will not be told. The same is true of everyone else. We all are bursting at the seams with stories, but we are either too lazy or too undisciplined or too afraid to tell them. The stories we are afraid to tell can be the most riveting and the most emotionally draining.


I used to be a pretty decent proofreader, but not of my own work. My proofreading skills (and my interest in proofreading) have diminished over the years. But I have never been a good proofreader of my own stuff. I assume my brain and my fingers have done what I intended, so why would I proof my work? My answer, of course, is that when I subsequently read something I wrote, I find typographical errors, malapropisms, and other unintentional but rather embarrassing mistakes. I know the difference between their and there and they’re; I know the difference between hear and here; I know the appropriate tenses to use; I am reasonably knowledgeable of vocabulary. Regardless, I screw up. But my brain tells me, “no, don’t worry, I’m good and I’ll make sure your fingers do the work you intend.” In other words, I mislead myself. Some days, when I read something I wrote weeks or months or years ago, I wonder whether “mislead” is the right word. Perhaps “lie to” is more appropriate. All of this is to acknowledge that this post and all my posts may be laced with errors that would be caught and corrected by a good proofreader. But I write early in the day and I have no interest in waiting for a proofreader to give me to go-ahead to hit “publish.” So, I hope readers will forgive me for my sometimes often sloppy writing.


I dreamed last night I accidentally shaved off my beard. In the dream, I was having a conversation with mi novia while I was shaving and was not paying attention to what I was doing. Suddenly, I realized I had shaved the entire middle portion of my beard. I had no real choice but to finish removing it. Oh, I could have left it, but it would have looked exactly like it was; a mistake caused by inattention. What, I wonder, is that telling me? Is it a lesson, or merely a series of random imaginary experiences related to nothing but misfiring neurons?


I am ravenously hungry, despite having eaten two Delta-style chicken tamales for dinner last night. Delta-style tamales, in my vernacular, are tamales made with cornmeal instead of masa harina. I much prefer masa-based surroundings for my fillings. I told mi novia last night I have wanted, for years, to make lamb vindaloo tamales but I have never done it. On February 1, 2020, I posted a recipe for the dish that I dreamed up (probably by adapting other recipes…I am not enough of a chef to do it without help). Still, I have not made it. I’ll post is again to see if this will prompt me to action or, perhaps, an adventurous friend will do it and invite me to try them:

Lamb Vindaloo Tamales

• 3 lb boneless lamb shoulder, cut into roughly 2-in chunks
• 4 oz red wine vinegar
• 2 tbsp sunflower oil
• 2 tsp sea salt flakes
• 1lb potatoes, peeled and cut into roughly 1-inch pieces

For the sauce
• 4 oz sunflower oil
• 4 onions, 3 finely sliced and 1 chopped
• 6 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
• 3 jalapeño or hot Asian red chile (do not deseed), roughly chopped
• 1oz fresh root ginger, peeled, roughly chopped
• 1 tbsp English mustard powder
• 1 tbsp ground cumin
• 1 tbsp ground coriander
• 1 tbsp ground paprika
• 2 tsp ground turmeric
• 2 tsp cayenne pepper
• 1 tsp ground cinnamon
• 2 tsp sea salt flakes
• 2 bay leaves

Preparation method

    1. Trim the lamb, discarding any really hard lumps of fat and sinew. Mix the vinegar, vegetable oil and salt in bowl until well combined. Add the lamb and turn to coat in the marinade. Cover and chill in the fridge for two hours.
    2. Preheat the oven to 350.
    3. For the sauce, heat three tablespoons of the sunflower oil in a large heavy-based frying pan and cook the sliced onions very gently over a medium-low heat for 15 minutes until softened and lightly browned, stirring occasionally.
    4. While the sliced onions are cooking, put the remaining chopped onion, garlic, chiles, ginger, mustard powder, cumin, coriander, paprika, turmeric, cayenne pepper and cinnamon in a food processor and blend to a purée.
    5. Stir the purée into the fried onions. Add two tablespoons of oil and cook together for five minutes, or until thickened and beginning to color. Remove the mixture from the pan and place into a casserole dish.
    6. Drain the lamb in a colander and reserve the marinade. Return the frying pan to the heat and add two tablespoons of the remaining oil. Fry the lamb in four or five batches over a medium-high heat, turning occasionally until lightly browned. Add a little extra oil if necessary. Add the lamb to the casserole.
    7. Pour the reserved marinade and 2- 1/4 cup water into the casserole dish. Add the salt and bay leaves and bring to a simmer. Cover the surface of the curry with a piece of greaseproof paper (parchment), then cover with a lid. Cook in the oven for 45 minutes.
    8. Remove the casserole from the oven and stir the potato chunks into the curry, re-cover with the greaseproof paper and the lid and continue to cook for a further hour or until the lamb and potatoes are very tender. The consistency of the vindaloo matters with tamales; cook until much of the liquid has dissipated and the meat and potato mix is quite thick. Season, to taste, with salt.
    9. Prepare masa using the traditional means.
    10. FILL, FOLD AND STEAM THE TAMALES Select 30 of the largest husks without tears or large holes. Arrange 1 husk on a work surface with the narrow end pointing away from you. On the wide end, spread 3 tablespoons of the Tamale Dough in a 5-by-3-inch rectangle, leaving a 1/2-inch border of husk at the bottom. Spoon 2 tablespoons of the cooled vindaloo filling in the center of the Tamale Dough. Fold in the long sides of the husk, overlapping them to enclose the filling. Fold the narrow end toward you, over the tamale; it will be open at the wide end. Stand the tamale, open end up, in a very large steamer insert. Repeat with the remaining corn husks, Tamale Dough and filling.


Yesterday’s church service in the sanctuary and subsequent conversation in the community hall were interesting and uplifting. I had the honor of announcing two recipients of the church’s highest honor. I wish I could have announced two additional people; perhaps the awards committee will select them, both very deserving, next year. I remain stunned and grateful that I stumbled into this church several years ago. It is so different from what I know of traditional churches that I hesitate to call it by that name. But the minister insists it is, indeed, a church. I will not taunt him by arguing. Whatever it is, it is important to me.


I am sure I will not have lamb vindaloo tamales this morning, so I will wander off into the kitchen and find something else to eat. I’m grateful that I live when, where, and how I do. I am one of the fortunate ones; too many others on this planet cannot say the same.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Gratitude with a Side of Wonder

  1. Meg Koziar says:

    Lots of passages of interest here, John, but let me address just one: I love your quote (of yourself) “Everything happening around us is a story waiting to be told.” I immediately thought of the book “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek,” by Annle Dillard. When I read it recently on Kindle, I did not know when it had been written. I thought it had been written by a woman in her 60s perhaps, but physically fit. I later learned that it has won the 1974 Pulitzer Prize and that she was only in her 20s. It is a beautiful, amazing book, with memorable stories about ordinary things and the natural world. I hope you are familiar with it.

I wish you would tell me what you think about this post...

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.