I find that a little nutmeg greatly improves french toast, which the kid had requested for lunch. So I grubbed in the overstuffed kitchen drawer for the battered old spice grater and reached into the spice section for my bottle of whole nutmegs. Nutmeg, like most spices, is much better freshly ground. It's also one of those pleasantly old-fashioned things to do; I remember that centuries ago, when spices cost a young fortune, a proper housewife would keep her nutmeg in its silver grater tied safe at her waist with her household keys.

The scent of fresh-ground nutmeg is satisfying and complex. Years ago, I took organic chemistry, the only chemistry course I honestly hated, and I've forgotten virtually everything I once learned about this stuff. Still, I have faint residual notions that the scent of nutmeg has something to do with ethers and esters and essential oils and maybe some weird benzene derivatives that look like fractured chickenwire. I remember the almost indecipherably complicated structures in the lab handbook. I don't know who deserves more credit: Mother Nature for coming up with (say) 4-cyclooctyl-4'-cyclopentylbiphenyl , or some chemist for figuring out how all the bitty pieces fit together--and how to pronounce the name.

Someone, somewhere, has probably taken nutmegs and ground them up fine and extracted them with ether or hexane and run the extract through gas or liquid chromotography, to isolate and identify all the compounds that give a nutmeg its nutmegginess. People do this sort of analysis simply because it's a neat thing to do, and sometimes it has practical outcomes. You never know, maybe there's a cure for cancer there. At least that's the way it ought to be: you do the work purely for love, and maybe there's some other reward, but you're more apt to get the reward if you don't aim for it in the first place.

Still, I enjoy the nutmegginess of nutmegs, and the lemonitude of lemon peel, and the cinnamonity of cinnamon and the gingerality of ginger. I would like to think--in fact, I do believe--that there is also a Mollyishness of Molly, some essence of self that I've had since before I was born and will carry with me out of this life in due course.

Having had a couple of babies, I know for a fact that people are born with definite personalities. The Rossitude of Ross and the Johnishness of John have unfolded over time, but have not really changed since each one popped from the womb. Pepper may be more or less peppery, with this undertone of musk or that overtone of pine; it may be hotter or milder, and it may give forth more or less of its flavour, depending, but it still is pepper, not cloves.

If there are hundreds, even thousands, of organic scents and flavours, how many flavours are there of human personalities? One per individual, even identical twins, and no two flavours are identical. As mysteries go, this is right up there with the infinite individuality of snowflakes. Is it something to do with the individuality of our genomes? Probably. When does it first form? I have no idea.

I do know that this essence-of-self exists in each of us, and I see that it has the potential to develop, to become more itself --think of an apple that's most perfectly apple-y, an apple bursting with juice and flavour. But that appleness can't exist in theory only; it needs the apple. Can our souls become our souls without our bodies? I don't think so. We're growing (if we choose to grow, that is) throughout life, and that growth involves body and soul in a lifelong dance of some complexity. The ancient Jews were right to use the same word for the body-soul whole, because you can't peel them apart. What do you do to the nutmeg when you grind it up, extract its essential oils and esters, strip the nutmegginess out of it? You destroy it, that's what.

And to some people, I fear that happens: that they are so badly treated, or so fundamentally neglected, that something in them dies. We seem to feel that because we can't actually see a person's soul, it isn't vulnerable to harm as the body is. Cut off a person's hand, and you'll see lots of blood, a visible wound, and you will understand that the person has suffered permanent, crippling damage. Do the same sort of damage to a person's soul, and all you're apt to see is a certain hurt or vacancy in the person's eyes, and that you can easily ignore. Or we'll see maladaptive behaviour, and blame the person for choosing to behave badly, ignoring the deep damage that causes the behaviour. We can do real and deep harm to another person's soul, and then blame the person for not "getting over it"; we judge and condemn the wounded because they are wounded, and because we'd rather hand them our guilt to carry than carry it ourselves. But we're only starting to figure out now that, just as wounds to the body leave their traces on the soul, so wounds to the soul leave their traces on neural pathways, the immune system, skin and bone and bowels and glands. Each of us really is a unity, and you can't do damage to one part without damaging the whole.

But God does know the whole shebang; God is indeed about our paths and ways, knowing us from the moment sperm meets egg until the last breath leaves us. God knows what the you-ness of you is supposed to be like. God knows whatever damage leaves you unable to be all that you could have been--whence comes the scab on the apple --and doesn't reject you for what you can't help being. Properly considered, not one of us isn't wounded somewhere, after all.

God also knows, though, where you've chosen to cherish sloth or bitterness or pride or anger and how that choice will inevitably stop you from becoming all the soul you could be. God knows that we fear and avoid growth, because it means change and we'd rather stay just where we are. God knows that we have to struggle to grow. It isn't the easy, delightful pathway that some self-improvement books promise. It can be bloody hard work and extremely painful sometimes. And because we don't like either work or pain, we'll sometimes choose to stay stuck where we are, instead of growing toward where we should be.

My duty toward God is, with God's help, to become the best Molly I can be, given my natural and acquired limitations. Growth is a journey, and the end of the journey is to present back to God what God has given me--my self, my soul and body--having made the best of it that I can. I know that I screw up constantly, but I also know that God knows why I screw up; while I have a duty to try to do better, I know that God is blessedly merciful, and a good thing too, because if God weren't merciful, not one of our geese would remain uncooked. If life had been different, perhaps I'd be further along this path than I am--or perhaps not so far along, who knows? But the important thing is simply to stay pointed Godward and keep moving, as best I can. That, dear God, I promise to do.

Copyright © 2000 Molly Wolf. Originally published Sat, 22 Jul 2000
[Sabbath Blessings contents page] [Saint Sam's home page] [Comments to web page maintainers]