lenten journal: mise en place


    I don’t come by organization easily.

    I’ve never been one to know exactly where a particular piece of paper is, nor one who naturally finds a way to categorize life and collect things in an ordered fashion. I suppose I could compliment myself somehow by saying I’m a more organic organizer, but the truth is it takes me a long time to figure it out. We have lived in our house here in Durham for almost a year and the kitchen is just now beginning to make sense to me; I am just now beginning to figure out where things go. And I’ve chosen a profession that thrives on organization.

    Go figure.

    I’ve been working at the restaurant at Duke about a month and a half longer than we’ve owned our house, so I suppose it’s no surprise that I’m finally figuring out a system there as well. You see, when you go into a restaurant and order a dish, whatever time it takes them to prepare and serve it is dwarfed by the amount of time it took to prepare to be able to cook the dish to order. If we want to serve our Brown Sugar-Dijon glazed salmon to you in a reasonable time frame (and we do), long before you begin to make your way to our dining room, we have cleaned and portioned the salmon, prepared the glaze, cut and roasted the seasonal vegetables (tonight’s were roasted zucchini, carrots, yellow squash, and radishes), and made the sweet potato polenta far enough in advance for it to set and then cut it into sticks to fry. All of those things are in containers and cold drawers, waiting for the ticket to come through that will call them into service and us into action.

    And we have a term for it all: mise en place, which translated means, “to put in place.”

    My work day at the restaurant right now runs from eleven in the morning to nine at night. Of those ten hours, six of them are spent getting ready. Sometimes six and a half, when there is a lot to prepare. The prep list is driven by the menu, each dish requiring six or seven tasks to get them in place for cooking. If we prepare well, the evening generally goes well, regardless of how many customers come in. Our well stocked mise en place means we are ready for the unexpected. Then there are the nights when we let ourselves believe we are well stocked when we know better, leaving one or two things a little short and, of course, by some strange intuition the first ten customers come in and order the thing we have nine of, sending us into a spin, trying to do that which we are no longer prepared to do.

    And we know what the menu is.

    Mise en place struck me as an appropriate Lenten metaphor a week or two ago because Lent is a season of preparation. When I sat down to write tonight, I began to ask, “Preparing for what?”

    Yes, I know we are walking to the Cross with Jesus. Yes, I know we are getting ready for those dark days between the Crucifixion and the Resurrection. Yet, as moving as Maundy Thursday services are for me and as palpable as the grief can be, we live on the business side of the Resurrection. Christ is risen. If I’m getting ready for something is it not something more than acting out the obvious? Perhaps, then, Lent is mise en place without a menu: getting ready for what we do not know.

    If I have done my prep work well at the restaurant, I don’t have to worry about the small stuff and can concentrate on the bigger picture, if you will: on making sure the plates are excellent, my communication with the staff is clear, and that I have time to go out into the dining room to meet some of our customers. I’m preparing to free myself to see more than slicing and dicing, to see the whole instead of the parts.

    When I am at my most distracted or disorganized is when life descends into details. Though it alliterates nicely, it sucks to live out. During January and February of this year, I wrote fewer blog posts than I have any months in the three years I’ve been writing, other than a couple of months when my depression had the best of me. For the first winter in almost a decade, I have not been depressed; in fact, I have felt more hopeful. My struggle, I think, is related to organization: I’m trying to figure out how to put things in place to be who I want to be. Many of the nights I have chosen not to write because I wanted time with Ginger (which is at a premium on our current schedule), or I chose to sleep (which is a health issue). I have worked hard to see a bigger picture and not be legalistic. My goal when I started writing was to write two-hundred and fifty posts a year, mostly because I wanted to develop the discipline of a writer. I am still committed to that discipline and I want to see a larger grace that allows for time to lay fallow, to do something other than keep up production.

    And I knew Lent was coming when I would keep my yearly promise to write a thousand words everyday. I knew I was getting ready to, well, get ready: to put things in place. The menu I’m working with includes doing a job I love that has grown to be larger and more demanding of my time, investing in my marriage in a way that offers Ginger more than the dregs of my existence, writing this blog and some other things I want to be on paper, cultivating friendships both old and new, and growing to be more faithful in my life. This is the season for me to make my prep lists and do what I need to do to get ready for life beyond the Resurrection, for living out those days we call Ordinary Time with flavor and intention.

    I’m grateful for the time to prepare.



    1. Milton,
      Mise en place is such a great term – thanks for defining it for me.

      I’ve thought for a couple of years that pastoral care is not simply a matter of bedside prayers or hospital corridor pacing with a grieving widow: it begins in the regular exposure to the gospel in the mundane days when all seems well. A mise en place of the soul, if you will. Now I’ve got something else to use when I talk to people about this. Thanks again.

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