Monday, January 10, 2011

Retreat, part 3: Simplicity or How to Know an Onion

*This post got much longer than I planned on...I encourage you to read it though.  There's some good stuff (if I do say so myself) towards the end...stuff about what I learned rather than just what I did.*
The first discipline we cover at the retreat was simplicity.  I'll admit it had me curious. Before we left for the retreat we got an e-mail that said, and I quote "For our presentation on simplicity, we ask that you please bring a cutting board and a sharp knife.  If you have the ability to bring more than one of each that would be fantastic just in case anybody is not able to bring one."
With a set up like that, who could not be curious?  It was quite a sight to see all 30ish of us walking through the convent carrying cutting boards and knives.  In some cases it was actually quite frightening.  After the group talked for a time, they passed out onions, great big yellow onions.  They told us not to peel them yet.  This was hard for me.  We weren't even allowed to fiddle with them! We got to know our onions.  We talked to them.  Again, this was quite strange, a room full of seminary students talking to onions.
We looked at the bums of our onions and their heads.  We examined the paper like skin and noticed the veins.  We explored the shape of the onion. We held them in our hands and caressed them.
Views of my onion.  We were friends.  (click to enlarge)

Then, slowly, almost reverently we undressed our onions. We peeled back the layers of onion paper as gently as possible, trying to keep the "clothes" intact.
My "elbow buddy" carefully removes the skin from her onion.
A pile of discarded onion clothes
Then we examined the dressings of the onion, marveling at the composition of the skin.
The skin of the onion was a paradox in an of itself. It was so delicate, yet so strong. It was living, but dead.  It was brown on one side, but yellow on the other. One side felt like old dry paper, the other like a mucous membrane.
I made a piece of mine into a turtle. I like turtles.
After we had undressed our onions, we chopped them in half.  For a brief moment, all the tenderness we had expressed towards them was gone.  The knives came out and the cleaving was decisive.  It was rather tragic. There was not a dry eye in the room. (okay, that may have had more to do with the fact that 30ish onions had just been cut open then with the tragedy).
Like biologists (or botanists) discovering a new species we examined the inside of our onions. We noted how the rings were nested inside of each other, like a set of dolls I used to have when I was younger, inside of each doll, a smaller doll, and a smaller doll, and a smaller doll. But I digress. We also noted how the color shifted even within each ring.  The concave edge was white, while the convex edge was a more goldeny-yellow color.
The nesting and color change
After examining this we were instructed to put our onions back together. This should not have been a problem since we had merely cleaved them in half. However, onions are pretty special things.  They don't fit back together once they have been separated. See?
There is a fancy biology word for what causes this.  It starts with a "t" and sounds like "ter-grr pressure" or something like that.  Basically, it's because there is so much pressure in the onion, when it has room to expand it does.  It changes on a cellular level when it has the space to.  My inquiring brain wondered if this could be exploited to grow onions in various shapes...if you planted an onion in a small square form, would it grow square?  What about a fun spiral shape? How strong is this pressure?  would it break wood? clay? concrete? While I was sweating through withdrawal on Tuesday and the kangaroo in my brain was having an unwelcome carnival, I pondered how to create this into a sound experiment.  Then I decided it was too much work (soil density, sample size, controls, humidity, temperature, moisture, viability of the onion bulb...).  But it would still be fun.
The more analytical part of my brain thought about relationships.  When two people are in relationship with each other, they are together, and if it is a serious relationship, they become one.  I think of some relationships I've had with friends (no, we did not become one in the awkward sense of the word.  Get your minds back where they belong!). When we were together we fit well together.  However, time passed and we separated.  We were/are still member of the same body (we're still onion parts) and we can still come together in ways, but we will never fit together like we used to.  We've been separated and the pressures inside us (aka, life and circumstance) caused to expand on our own, not uniformly, and as a result we don't fit together the same way any more.  But we are still onion parts.  For that I rejoice.  
I also had thoughts about broken hearts and this broken world we live in that needs a miracle to make us whole again.  Thank you Jesus for being that miracle!
Back to the onion. After trying to put the onions back together and learning that we couldn't, we very carefully we used the points of our knives we separated each section from the others.  We laid them out before us, much like I used to lay my nesting dolls out.  It was amazing to see how well they fit together and to marvel at the fact that they would never fit together again.
Someone with a lot more skill than me did this onion.  Mine was a little smushed. Oops!
After we had separated them we peeled of the membrane inside one of the sections.  It was so thin and transparent, like skin or white glue that has dried on your hands and you have peeled off or that privacy glass that you can almost see through sometimes...
Eventually, we sliced the onions and squished the juice out of them.  Onions are mostly water.  The power that water has is amazing.  It washes away dirt.  It makes the onion strong.  It quenches our thirst.  It makes things grow.  It freezes.  It vaporizes. It is so powerful it is used a symbol in baptism ("As surely as water washes away the dirt from the body, so certainly his blood and his Spirit wash away my soul's impurity, in other words, all my sins" (Q&A 69, Heidelberg Catechsim))
After we were all done spending time with our onions we chopped them up and made French Onion Soup. I hear that it was good.  It wasn't allergy friendly enough for me to partake.  It was a reminder to me of how something beautiful can come out of something so broken.  We took those onions apart, analyzed them, squished the juice right out of them, but they still made yummyness. 
By now you are probably wondering what this had to do with simplicity.  It all sounds rather complex (and it was). The point was learning to take joy in the simple things of life.  To savor every moment.  That life doesn't need to be filled with gadgets and electronics and noise to be filled with beauty.  We spent at least an hour cutting those onions and it was an hour well spent.  We can learn so much from just slowing down and noticing the little things.  And that is one of the keys to living simply.  Slowing down.  Appreciating what you have.  And eating yummy soup.  :)

Post script: The room in which we did this activity became known as the onion room for rest the's real name: the tulip room.


Sarah Elizabeth said...

quite enjoyable story. thanks for the reminder to stop and smell the -err- onions.

Angela said...

I will never look at an onion the same way again!! Although, for my family's sake, I don't think I will spend an hour peeling one each time! Thanks for the reminder to slow down and appreciate the little things. Reminds me of one of my favorite 'Little House on the Prairie' quotes: It is the sweet, simple things of life which are the real ones after all.
~Laura Ingalls Wilder :)