In Service of Clarified Butter

2 9 15
Early on in the #365Quote Project. February 9, 2015.

For this (I’m-super-behind) Quest2016 prompt CHRIS BROGAN asks us

How will you better clarify whom you serve and what you do for them in 2016?

I’ve noodled this. I’ve put it off for a week. Because 1) there is no oomph for me right now – everything in life feels temporarily very stuck – including words and feelings, 2) all the answers are (unabashedly?) selfish feeling and 3) all I can actually think about is clarified butter.

So let’s start there, with the butter – because there is nothing better than butter. I swear it runs in my veins. I’m not kidding. Butter, unlike liquid oils is part fat, a small portion water and 1-2% milk solids. Because of the milk solids and water, it doesn’t take nearly as much heat to brown or burn butter – when compared to other fats. So, clarified butter just the fatty goodness of butter, without the water and milk solids – and it’s required if you are, say, frying or high-heat-long-time cooking something in butter. (Let’s just pause here and say – YUM).

In theory, making clarified butter is easy. In theory, almost everything is easy – no? Throw your butter into a heavy pan, heat at a low temperature until it melts. Until the (totally delicious) milk solids float to the top and some of the water evaporates off. Skim off the milk solids, strain the liquid through cheesecloth – voila – clarified butter. But, cook it too hot, you get browned butter (still delicious, but not what you are going for). Cook it too hot and too long, hot burnt mess. Don’t cook it long enough, just a pile of melted butter. And, you’ve gotta skim, and pour – and anyone who knows me can voice that I am terrible at pouring anything. So, it takes some attention. Some focus.

Distilled. Impurities removed. Clean. Clear. Condensed. Powerful. Refined. Purified. Specific.

Clarified butter serves a very specific purpose. High heat. You can’t really use it for baking. It’s not so much fun to spread on bread.

But, you’re probably getting tired of the butter analogy, so I’ll move on.

And here comes the selfish part – when I think about who I serve and why – the answer is me me me me me me me. (Oh wait, more butter.)

This has been a clarified butter year for me. Literally. I have been tending to my one hundred and thirty five pounds of butter on the stove. Heating it up. Melting it down. Watching for the white, crackly, solids to float to the top – and skimming them off. Tending to temperature and skimming and timing and – yes – even efficient pouring.

I’ve been finding my voice by standing over that pot and skimming off the tiny bits of floating white. I’ve been distilling my sense of self into something understandable, translatable, powerful, potent and useful for me. I have been refining this thing that I am, stripping away water and milk solids and all of the other things that brown and burn at high heat and intensity.

And all of that time in the kitchen, over the pot of melted butter, has made for one very selfish feeling year. Maybe my most selfish year. (Well, ask my parents what I was like as a teenager, maybe this is nothing like those years). My most selfish adult year. I have, literally, been focused on serving myself. I’m behind on thank you notes and birthday cards and (now) Christmas presents. To say the least.

This past year I have been serving myself. The year ahead…I will still be serving myself. And what – what do I do for this little audience of one?

I write and I hone and I clarify and I craft. Because, as Brenna Layne says it so powerfully: “Writing is how I make sense of the world.” I do it because the writing itself is the process of warming and skimming and pouring that butter through the cloth. The writing is the only way that I can process and filter and file everything soaked in through these six sense (you know, the heart is a pretty big sense). And, quite frankly, it’s all begging to be shared. Maybe the it isn’t begging, but there is something in my brain that just wants to share it. Without even thinking.

Maybe it’s because I’m an introvert. Maybe it’s because I live alone in the middle of nowhere. Maybe it’s because I have always been this way. Maybe I am shy. Maybe I just feel most own-it, confident, brazen, brashly myself with pen in hand instead of telling stories at the dinner table.

It doesn’t matter. I write because it serves me. It helps me iron out the wrinkles of the day. It helps evaporate the water in the butter. It let’s the irksome milk solids float to the top.

It doesn’t matter if any of it is good. It (most of the time) really doesn’t matter if anyone reads it. It’s about the process. It’s about making the time to make life make sense. It’s about living firmly rooted in a practice. Because all of those things help me stay present and distilled down to the important, heat-tolerant stuff – and help me keep moving forward. Boldly and bravely.

And here’s the thing, the thing that confuses and bowls me over and blows me away. The times when I write and I am most grounded and most me and most present and vulnerable – those are the times when the most people respond. Respond to something that I have written. And that sets me back to the pot over the stove, to stir and skim and continue to focus on this practice. The practice of being grounded and clear. The practice of sharing.

I will continue to clarify my own butter in the year ahead. To stand over the stove and melt and stir and distill and purify. Because in that clarity, when I make that space for myself – then I can hear and share my own voice most effectively.

And, why does that matter? Because each day as I write more and more, and share more and more, and get braver more and more, and try to find and stay in that place of authentic me-voice-self-ness – I need more and more to be able to find that real voice within myself. The voice that translates and processes and makes sense of everything that I see, and the voice that gets written publicly to share all of those thoughts back out. Because, I need to stay continually grounded in my self and my perspective to avoid getting pulled away by the gusty winds of well, what do they want to hear?*

*Whew, in seeing that on the page, it’s a double whammy. The intention was about my writing. Because I see how lackluster and dull and antiseptic and cloying and boring and dead it is when I try to write with that question in mind. AND, in seeing those words there – holy how if I am now a recovering super-duper-people-pleaser.

The #Serve message from Quest2015 lives here: In Service of Happiness

CHRIS BROGAN explores how people use content and community  to build marketplaces around areas of belonging. He is CEO of Owner Media Group , providing simple plans and projects for business success. He is also a highly sought after professional speaker and the New York Times bestselling author of eight books and counting, including his forthcoming book, Insider: Strategies and Secrets for Business Growth in the Age of Distractions


Are You My Audience?

I started writing because I met a girl*. At a wedding. We sat on a bus stop bench outside of the hotel and talked until the early morning hours. There was a brief kiss, and then I headed home to Portland, Oregon and she to the ocean as the leader of a salty, summer-long, summer camp kayak trip for high school girls.

We wrote letters. I wrote letters. Every day. From the back yard, tucked into my bed late at night, on the bus home from work. Such an intimate way to get to know someone. More so, to share yourself. There is the power of the time that lapsed between my writing and her reading. Something safe about the physical distance, a way to dampen any embarrassment or bravely battle any attachment to how my words are received. The distance both removed the caring, and heightened it. The length of time a question remains unanswered. And the magical ability to pen your life, to pain the picture however I choose. True, but curated and intimately hand-selected with purpose The arms length and the time lapse. The ability to structure a message with care. The ability to send a message of care, even if few words are enveloped in that folded, sealed paper bearing the stamp. [Sidenote, as I re-learn my “appetite” for how much interaction I want to hand with real people in real life, a Jane Austin-style correspondence via post is my favored form of relationship, in my humble opinion. Thanks to Suzi Banks Baum for putting this concept into writing so elegantly.]

I started writing because I had a reason, but more so because I had an audience. Letters are perfect like that. More than an personal journal, less than a journal article. A captive audience. A reason to write without narrative purpose. Through this desire to connect, and this audience audience of one, I developed (albeit unwittingly) a practice. A writing practice.

I find it hard to write without an audience. Not that I write in order to be read, but because it’s easier to write when I can picture a face or person or name who be on the other side of the words. Usually that face is the reflection I see in my computer screen. I primarily write for me, to iron my ideas into the smoothness of something wearable.

Still, the concept of an audience serves as some small motivation to take the ideas out of my head and plunk them on to paper. To keep going. I know that I am usually my best (and only) audience. And I love me, so this is quite often sufficient. But sometimes, when there is no aching and gnawing inner crisis or dilemma in me, or when I am dulled, I don’t serve as my best audience. My best motivator. Sometimes it’s nice to just imagine writing for someone else. Even if they don’t care. Even if they won’t read it. Even if it only means a fraction of a percent to her as it means to me. The thought of an audience serves as motivation to simply pick up the pen, to be accountable.


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Hence, the love letters, the audience of one two. Each parcel sent was addressed to an address in Maine, ending in the following notation:

Hope, ME 04847

Each of the parcels, composed, bundled, sealed, addressed, stamped and hung on the mailbox by a binder clip was a letter to me, more than to her. Each was a manifestation of my hope, my desires, my efforts to synthesize my expectations for life into written form, and send hope to me via a camp in Maine to a kayak in the waters off Nova Scotia. That summer, I learned more about what I wanted out of life than I have in years. I also learned that we weren’t right for each other, and that she wasn’t the right person to fit into this garden I was cultivating through letters. (She is now married to a dear friend from my college days, and they welcomes a beautiful son into their family last year).

And back to the writing, it truly is a practice. The more I spread the ink over the page, the easier it is. The more fluid my dreaming whirls become my waking thoughts become my early morning notes and essays. It is like meditation, like exercise, like training. My brave letters opened a door to a writing class, and a writing group, and oodles of confidence and life-long, dear writing companions who each sail her own brave kayak of words among a whirling ocean. So blessed to have these comrades on the journey.

– – –

I have a pile of letters in my underwear drawer. Each a messages to myself. Things to remember. Notes in a bottle. Often sent at the end of a journey, mailed back to my house or a waystation, to be received and read in the future. At the end of a cross-country bike trip, I sent mail back to my PO box in New Haven. Writing from the water-level pier on the Willamette River in Portland, I sent letters to my future, graduate-school-bound self at my parents’ house.

Dear Self. I love you. Don’t forget that. xo, me.

– – –

*In all truth, I started writing in my journal when I was in elementary school. I still have these journals, bound in puffy plastic, pink paper with wide-set white lines. my writing then may have been more regular than any other time in my life, up until the fall-in-love-correspondences on that summer. Writing has always been in me, or writing has always come out of me.