I recently learnt the true meaning of the word “bricolage” via an excellent book on qualitative research that I have been indexing for Wiley-Blackwell. In this volume a semi-humorous example was given of a bricoleur chef who produces great culinary masterpieces from whatever she happens to find in the family fridge (I couldn’t help wondering whether the author knew such a chef, perhaps in her own family). Now this really appealed to me, because I am that kind of cook. I rarely remember to plan meals much in advance or look up recipes – I might just decide to get some meat out of the freezer during the afternoon with the idea of cooking it that evening, but often I forget, so we do eat quite a few non-meat meals in our household, unless it’s cold meat that I can reheat from frozen, or a quick-unfreeze meat such as mince. My cooking is most often driven by the leftovers in the fridge from the properly thought-out meals I may just have managed to prepare over the weekend. Indeed, I am so allergic to using recipes that my husband, giving me a small recipe book for a birthday or Christmas in our early years together, wrote an adaptation of the Nunc Dimittis for the occasion, on the fly-leaf, beginning: “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, from according with thy recipes; for mine eye has perceived an improvement ….”
Recently my 11-year-old daughter had a barbecue for her birthday, with four of her friends invited round to share it. The barbecue had to be cooked inside, with grill, frying pan and oven, because of the appalling weather we in the UK have endured for far too much of this summer, but it tasted pretty good and everyone enjoyed it. However, owing to two of her friends having cried off within a day or two of the event, I had bought too much meat and made the mistake of cooking most of it, partly because I had already frozen it and didn’t want it to hang around raw in the fridge, and partly in the belief that 11-year-olds are always hungry. To their credit, most of the participants ate well, but even so, we had a number of beefburgers, lamb grills and a portion of chicken breast left over in the fridge, and there are only three of us in the family to eat them up. So I had a wonderful time creating curries, rice dishes and even a lasagne out of these various leftovers, ably abetted by my husband, who always cooks on a Saturday night and made a beautiful beef casserole as his contribution to the culinary bricolage.
But it occurs to me that actually the best kind of life, or at least the sort of life that I would feel most fulfilled to be living, is also a bricoleur life. After all, along the journey of life we all have a number of different experiences, good and bad, painful and joyous, and these are like leftovers in our fridge. We can leave them there to moulder and go rotten, or we can take them out and make something of them. If you have suffered some terrible trauma, then you will be able to have true sympathy with someone else who has suffered that trauma. Sympathy can be so very superficial, and it may seem quite miraculous to discover someone who really knows, for example, what grief a stillbirth is, if you have suffered one yourself. If, on the other hand, you have had the joy of seeing a child grow up into a mature, sensitive citizen living a life completely independent of your own but nevertheless appreciative of her upbringing and her relationship with you, then you can encourage those parents who are still battling with teenage rebellion or toddler tantrums. As a writer, I continually find that my fiction writing in particular is informed by this bricolage effect, often unconsciously. Readers say to me “How did you know it feels like that?” and when I think about it I can see that even though I have not experienced that particular emotion, I have walked with friends who have, or I have learned enough through those emotions that I have experienced to imagine my way into a slightly different one for the purposes of a novel.
Nothing needs to be wasted, neither in the fridge nor in the experiences of our lives. Even the things that hurt can be faced and brought into new and fruitful relationship with our present situation, or used to help or sympathise with someone else. And all the little skills we have picked up, life skills and people skills as well as technical and physical ones, can be brought into play creatively in making our and our near-and-dear’s life happier, better and more effective. Let’s use them.