My grandmother often did it. My sister-in-law does it now. They give me recipes they want me to have, want to pass down as family heirlooms. They tell me step by step how to make these dishes that have been eaten by generations before us. “And then you sprinkle some paprika/saffron/salt.” How much, I ask. I don't know, they reply. You just look at it. You smell it. You taste it.
I used to roll my eyes. I used to give up before I even started trying. Because it was something I couldn't quantify, couldn't grab with both hands, I didn't even try reaching for it. I wanted a very clear list of ingredients with very precise instructions on how to prepare those ingredients.
Years later, it is clear my best recipes, the ones I want my son and daughter to remember, don’t come with precise instructions. And it's not just that eyeballing it is often the best measure, it's that how do you account for the acidity of a lemon, the juiciness of a tomato, the pungency of an onion? The truth is, vegetables vary by harvest. You have to smell it, you have to taste it, to know how much is the perfect amount.
I turned 39 last week and I am beginning to see the most important qualities in life are also impossible to grasp. I can have all the formulas and plans for a life well-lived, but what will really make things work is something else, something I can't put my finger on.
It's exactly like the je ne sais quoi, the “I don't know what,” the French say makes a woman attractive. It’s the reason why the man who checks every single item on your list still isn’t The One and the guy who covers only half of it sweeps you off your feet and onto the altar. It’s also why your very best friend is your very best friend even if you’re complete opposites. It’s that intangible quality that makes it all just feel right, come together beautifully, and you cannot--for the life of you--explain it.
Not only can this factor not be quantified it or described in detail, it also only exists in the present moment and the more you chase it, the more it gets away. I know this well because the more I try to cook the perfect dinner for guests, the more I fail. It’s also why, unfortunately, I look my best on days when it matters the least.
But despite the fact that this unknowable factor enrages the perfectionist planner in me, I have also come to find great comfort in it. As a working mother of two little ones who is slowly beginning to have a social life again, I have very little time on my hands. Also, my mind is so cluttered that I have a hard time thinking through all the details in advance. So, I find myself more and more grateful for this invisible factor that cannot be premeditated and often shows up to make things great.
Thanks to it, I believe the odds might be in my favor even though the plans that were going to carry me through the day on my own with the kids have fallen through. Yes, I freak out, but then I come to see it’s highly likely something will come up to save the day--a sudden invitation for an early dinner, a favorite song on the radio that puts us all in a good mood, or the miracle of both kids going down for a nap at the same time. Or it won’t, and that’s also fine because sometimes it just sucks and down the road, that mysterious factor will pop up again and make things better.
And it’s this invisible, elusive factor that is also allowing me to take a breath when I think of my life in the big picture. I know people who believe in solid life plans. I admire and somewhat envy them. They seem so certain and in control. I used to make plans and checklists for my life as well, but too many unexpected things happened that showed me that strategy doesn’t work for me. But there is more. This elusive factor has popped up along the way, showing me different roads that didn’t appear on my map, that I could never have imagined existed. So, when I think of my life, of where I am and where I will go, I remember there is much more out there than I know, and it is usually some of the best stuff in life.
When I was in my early twenties, I went out to dinner to an ultra trendy restaurant with my mom and her group of girlfriends. There were a bunch of men at the bar who kept looking over to our table. I noticed they were not staring at me. They were captivated by the 8 other women in their mid to late 40s. I looked around the table and I understood why. I might have had youth on my side, but the women had something way beyond that. They had it, the je ne sais quoi. They were so comfortable in their skin that they moved with ease. They had discovered their own style, and while they looked trendy and modern, a closer look made it clear they only wore what they knew worked for them. Having survived life’s ups and downs many times over, they possessed a relaxed confidence that allowed them to laugh with abandon. And being past the point where they could control everything about their looks (I understand this last bit as I have entered this stage myself), allowed them to simply be present instead of worrying about their crow’s feet. I should send them each a fruit basket because every single time I feel bummed about my aging face (like when I FaceTime with my other sister-in-law and have to explain every.single.time “I don’t look tired, I am tired but what you’re seeing is actually aging”) I think of them and realize it’s going to be way more than OK.
The je ne sais quoi cannot be formulated, manufactured or pre-planned. But it will pop up and make everything better when given the space. The older I get, the more I conclude I am not entirely in command. I also realize that’s OK. I know this makes the way for the elusive quality that makes everything better--from recipes to looks, from everyday life to the future--to appear.