My mother had her share of hardships in life. Her first husband died only a few years after they married, leaving her with a young son and pregnant with my older sister. Not long after, her mother died suddenly. She met and married my father; I was born a few years later, my younger sister five years after that. Raising a noisy, blended family of four children while carrying within her the emotional burdens of trauma and grief made it hard for her to be “present” with us individually.
Except when she made apple pie.
I remember watching her from an early age. In time, I became old enough to participate. I learned how to peel, core, and slice the green Pippin apples with a paring knife. The peels were kept in a separate bowl and I would snack on them while we worked. She added sugar and cinnamon to the sliced apples and gave them time to absorb the flavors. She’d make the crust with Crisco, flour, and a few drops of water. She’d roll the dough and create the pie crusts she needed, pressing them into the pie plates. She’d add the apples, dot them with butter and a few drops of lemon juice, then seal them with the top crust. She taught me how to flute the edges of the crust with my fingers before the pie was put into the oven and to use a fork to poke venting holes on the top. The leftover dough was rolled out on the cutting board. She’d add sugar, cinnamon, and butter to it, then cut the dough into strips. She’d roll the strips into “pinwheels,” which would bake along with the pie. Pinwheels only took 10-12 minutes to bake. We’d take them out and let them cool, then enjoy them as the pie continued to bake. The kitchen filled with the smell of a baking apple pie.
My mom wasn’t a great cook, but she was a master at making pies. They were always a highlight of birthday and holiday dinners.
But as I got older, and especially after she died in 1993, I realized what I valued most was not the pies themselves, but the quality of time we shared during the process. Focusing on the manual labor allowed us to become calm and reflective. We listened to each other, laughed together, and simply enjoyed being together. I didn’t realize until I was older how rare and wonderful those times were. What a gift for a child to have such time with a parent!
Eventually, I found a word to describe such activities: “focal practices.” This is a term coined by Albert Borgman, a philosopher who has spent much of his career exploring the role of technology in our lives. The root of the word “focal” is focuser, a Latin word meaning hearth. In Roman families, everything was centered on the hearth. It was location of the family shrine, as it was where symbols of ancestors were carefully arranged and displayed. It’s where food was cooked, and where the family ate together. As Borgmann says, the hearth was where the family gathered to be present with each other and share what they most deeply valued. In our own times, focal practices can include preparing and sharing meals, going on walks and hikes, camping, playing games, crafts, fishing, building things, gardening, and sharing skills of all kinds. Engaging in such activities, we experience life at a deeper level. As Borgman says, focal practices both gather and radiate meaning.
Technological devices are a threat to such practices, he believes. Devices are objects that promise to give us what we want in a more effective way and with less effort. They always promise to save us time and labor. But something is lost when they displace focal practices.
Let’s imagine a device that makes perfect apple pies, like bread-makers make bread. You simply add the ingredients and push a button, and – voilà – a pie as good as mom’s appears. So effortless and convenient. But if we had that when I was a kid, I would have never learned the art of what she did, the satisfaction that came from doing it, or experienced the quality time we spent together. Pie-making was a focal practice. It did “take time”. But time is not an adversary to be conquered. Time is a gift to be received with gratitude.
As we approach the holidays, we can be grateful for memories of “focal practices” we’ve experienced in our past and seek opportunities to share such activities with family and friends this season.
As for me — I’m looking forward to the aroma of homemade pies baking in the oven.
“Taste and see that the Lord is good.”
Borgman, Albert, Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life: A Philosophical Inquiry, University of Chicago Press, 1984; Crossing the Postmodern Divide, University of Chicago Press, 19