The Solitude Burger

Like much of the world, I’ve spent the last few weeks at home in the hope that isolating myself from others helps flatten the COVID-19 curve. At the very least, it makes me less irritating to those who never see me!

Once these travel restrictions went into place, people immediately began lamenting their seclusion and loss of community. From manicures to gym memberships to sun bathing on the beach, lots of things seem impossible to live without. I think this is in part because these things bring pleasure and comfort, and in part because they keep us occupied and distracted. The need for social connection has been voiced loudly during this period and our global connectedness has been amply demonstrated during the virus for any who doubted it before. In response, we have been innovative and adaptive in finding ways to maintain contact. Drive by birthdays, Zoom meetings and family conversations, carrying a lawn chair to a park for a socially distant, six-foot rendezvous lunch with friends are examples of the adjustments people have made while waiting for a return to normalcy. I even read of individuals walking a goldfish and a chicken, claiming them as pets that needed exercise as an excuse to get out of the house.

As important as social connectedness is, we may be overlooking an important observation in this rare moment: the value of solitude. Apart from a few introverts celebrating that they don’t have to be social, comb their hair, or even put on pants, the number of people voicing appreciation for what the option to stay at home provides seems rather small. If we fail to notice the usefulness of solitude in these times, we may miss a golden opportunity.

As I eased into my retirement a few months ago, one powerful recognition was the gift of time that retirement affords. After years of set schedules, many demands, and an often frantic daily pace, the opportunity to fashion a day’s activities however I wished was a welcome change. It is nice not to have to “hit the ground running” each morning. The stay-at-home order presented a new twist on the gift of time: enjoying the richness of solitude. Many appreciate the flexibility afforded by the gift of time but that alone may not curb the tendency to fill a day with things – activity – busyness – even if the activities are ones you desire. Busyness can bring pleasure. Being occupied allows us to feel useful and productive—value categories that reside deeply within many of us. Being forced to stay home allows solitude to ring your doorbell and visit a while. (Granted, having others around can add an additional layer of challenge.) With solitude we have a greater opportunity to notice what is around us. We can get reacquainted with those closest to us because they aren’t going out either. We have time to reflect on the moment. Refocusing (and maybe rediscovering) what is important and meaningful is a choice we can make. As we survey the home and the heart, solitude affords us the opportunity to consider what needs attention and perhaps, what needs to be released.

Several comments and news clips validate the contribution of solitude during this strange time. Multiple social media posts have remarked at the ability to hear birds singing on spring mornings.  The slower pace and less competing noises have somehow allowed their songs to catch our attention. People are taking note as winter releases its grip on the earth and nature treats us to an incredible display of spring wild flowers and new life. In our area that includes Spring Beauties, Dutchmen’s Britches, Trillium, and Dog-toothed violets, to name a few. This year we discovered a newcomer called Bellwort scattered throughout the woods. Was this the first year it was here, or is this the first year I noticed? If I were a betting man, I’d place a wager on the latter. More time to meander through the woods and even do a little cleanup of fallen branches while treasuring solitude and time alone with my thoughts allowed me to appreciate this new find. At least a couple of news reports have observed that with fewer vehicles running and plants in operation, the air is cleaner and an atmospheric buzz has disappeared. Maybe the earth itself is taking a deep cleansing breath while we shelter at home.

Somewhere along the way I heard it said that until we are can be content being alone we aren’t fit to be with anyone else. I think those words contain a significant truth. Might this gift of solitude test our readiness to rejoin community?

With plenty of time and nowhere to go, Judi and I created a list of projects we never seem to find time for. They include little maintenance and home improvement items as well as what I jokingly call the once-in-a-decade cleaning chores (which most people call spring cleaning and probably do them annually!) I normally hate lists, finding them oppressive but have enjoyed whittling away at this one, especially since most of them are mindless tasks that support a reflective solitude.

One task that made its way to the top of the list was to examine the burners on our gas grill. The current travel restriction puts a damper on my cheeseburger search, so the best burgers I have had for the last six weeks are the ones I cook at home. That requires a grill in good working order!  

I have had my grill for about 18 years. I grew tired of replacing a cheap grill every two years due to one malfunction or another and decided to upgrade. Having realized a long time ago that Quaker simplicity wasn’t necessarily synonymous with cheap, I did some research and plunked down a fair chunk of change for a Ducane grill. I’d never heard of that brand before. If you’ve never heard of them either it may be because the company went bankrupt around 2004. They may have been unlucky in business, but they sure made a durable grill.  

In recent months I’d noticed the grill had a little hesitation when I lit it and some unevenness in the heat distribution. Lately, it seemed as though it wasn’t heating quite as well as it once did. From past experience I suspected the burners would need replacing, especially given the age of the grill. To my surprise when I removed the briquettes and heat shield, I discovered the burners were in excellent condition still, with the exception that many of its eyelets had become clogged from ash and debris over the years (the downside of being on a once-in-a-decade cleaning schedule! 🙂 ). That explained the hesitations and heating issues. I opened each eyelet with the point of a tiny awl and the burner lit like it was just out of the box. Having come this far, I researched the life span of briquettes and found recommendations that they be replaced about every 5 years. Oops. I was about a decade overdue. Funny, isn’t it, how we can neglect little things when we are overcommitted to a chaotic life, even though their neglect ultimately makes life more trying and frustrating? Two days later FedEx delivered replacement briquettes to my door. The difference these two little details made on the grill’s performance is quite noticeable. Now, I’m ready for a home grilled burger!

As I said in an earlier blog, a good cheeseburger begins with quality meat. For many years now, we have purchased beef from a local farmer. We know the animal has been well cared for. It was raised without the use of hormones. We are confident it spent most of its life in a pasture. It was grass and hay fed, finished off with corn over the last 45-60 days. Things like that matter to me. Decide what matters to you and explore available options in your area. Just know that not all hamburger is created equal! You may be surprised at the difference you’ll notice in taste and texture if you upgrade your meat selection.

Hot grill. Burgers are not meat that you want to slow cook! Since our grill is gas, I generally let it heat for fifteen minutes before cooking. I shouldn’t be able to hold my hand a couple of inches above the grill for more than a few seconds. When the meat hits the grill, I want to hear it sizzle, creating a darker brown outer color as the meat sears. I prefer a burger to cook fairly quickly.

Salt. I mentioned in an earlier blog that I think salt is all you need for seasoning a burger. It helps the meat be its best, most flavorful self. If I’m ahead of the game, I’ll add it a couple of hours in advance so it has time to penetrate and affect the fibers and proteins. If not, I’ll salt the cooked side of the burger right after I flip it.

Fresh air. My youngest sister finds time to visit from North Carolina occasionally and we often grill burgers while she’s here. She thinks our cheeseburgers are the best, and can’t figure out how to replicate them at home. “What makes them so tasty?” she asks. I told her the secret ingredient was fresh Indiana air. Winds blowing across the Midwest keep our air fresh, clean of pollutants. It is further filtered by all the trees that surround our home. Plus, ever since the day Judi and I first visited the place when we were house hunting this has felt like holy ground. Knowing that younger sisters always believe their older brothers, I spun a yarn about how the fresh air affected the taste (though not with a straight face!) That’s how legends are born, right? So maybe the air is a non-factor, but isn’t it true that most anything tastes better if you’re with people you love in a place you cherish? Try it and tell me if your burger doesn’t taste better!

Cheese.  Since you’re at home, choose what you want! You can bet there’s some Velveeta in our refrigerator (thanks Johnson’s!). I’m fond of Pepper Jack as well. Sometimes, I like a little kick in my burger bite. Whatever the cheese choice, I melt it on the burger before removing the meat from the grill.

These ingredients are not unique to how others prepare their burgers but with one exception. At home I can’t merely order the burger. I get to prepare it. I stand with it as it turns from bright pink to charcoaled brown. I smell its aroma floating skyward like a burnt offering. I am mindful of what is involved as I anticipate the future joy of savoring each bite.

There is something to be said for engaging with and getting to know the processes that sustain you. You can do that at home in a way that is hard to replicate elsewhere. In fact, that is part of what solitude adds to our days. We participate in our environment. We become acquainted with what is sustaining us (or draining us). We take notice of what is within us. Is it the kind of stuff you want to be made of? You are influenced by the company you keep. What kind of company are you for yourself? Time and solitude allow us to know ourselves better and even shift in the direction of the person we most deeply want to be. That is much more difficult when we live life on the run with one hectic, chaos-filled day after another.

The national chorus yearns for a return to normal. Might it be that normal isn’t in our best interest? Were we happy? Were we healthy? If not, why would we want to return to that state, other than it is comfortable because of the familiarity? Maybe these quarantine days afford us a grand opportunity. Perhaps they can put us on a path toward a new normal that is better than what we thought we had before, where quality ingredients, fresh air, and holy ground create a better burger than you can get elsewhere. Such is the gift of the Solitude Burger.

Further Reading

Purchase book.

“This is destined to become a new Quaker classic with its depths of insight on call and discernment.” — Carole Dale Spencer

“… the book is a rare and much needed Quaker-specific how-to manual for embracing our individual calls to ministry …” — Windy Cooler

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