A Mess of Pottage

I get Esau. I don’t get Jacob.

They’re brothers, bursting through the pages of the book of Genesis. It’s likely they hated each other for a good bit of their lives. Jacob, the smarter twin whose name means “supplanter” has tremendous presence of mind to take advantage of Esau’s weakness, not once but twice. First the birthright, then the blessing due to the firstborn son. Esau falls so neatly into Jacob’s trap. I imagine him as a rough and tumble man, boisterous, and dedicated to his own work but ultimately vulnerable in the hands of an opportunistic brother. Sadly, history and my Sunday School teachers remember Esau as something of a doofus. A mess-up. Sneaky Jacob gets to be a patriarch from whom King David, and eventually Christ descend.

A phrase from these stories has stood out to me over the years: “Sold for a mess of pottage.” Pottage, the archaic term for porridge, is what Esau is said to have accepted from his brother Jacob in exchange for his birthright. Since then, selling something for a “mess of pottage” means to behave shortsightedly, ready to trade something valuable for momentary comfort.


Wenceslaus Hollar – The Mess of Pottage

I can’t say I’ve ever sold my birthright for a mess of pottage. My family isn’t rich. Even though I’m my parents’ firstborn, there’s no blessing or birthright attached to the position. But my attachment to Esau remains. I guess I like underdogs. But I also think most of us go through bouts of bad decision-making and eat pottage when we should say “no thank you, I’ve had enough.”

The past seven months have ushered in some major life changes for me. I have written about starting over in a new city, marrying after a long sojourn as a singleton, attempts at a new career as a writer–which some would consider achingly white and middle class, and trying to redeem lost time pursuing things that would make other people happy.

In the past seven months I have sat in front of the computer screen, bursting with ideas for short stories and novels, ready to drill down and invest hours coaxing half-formed ideas into solid ones, to invest myself in the practice of writing daily so that it becomes the most important thing I do. Then I suddenly switch screens to the comforts of Netflix.

Why do I (we) self-sabotage like this? Why sell ourselves, if not for a mess of pottage, then for something less that what we know will bring us life? Time, if nothing else, may show us how much pottage we are actually eating. How much we thwart ourselves. I don’t really have a crafty twin brother—but I am scared of pushing myself into uncharted mental territories with writing. And I do have high-speed internet.

For Lent this year, I’ve given up YouTube, Netflix, and yes, embarrassingly, the British Daily Mail, the tabloid rag I can easily spend two or three hours on per day. The DM is easily the biggest mess of pottage in my pool of indulgences. But it’s bland and unworthy of a dedicated reader–well, any reader, really. So I am giving it up.

Katherine Paterson’s beloved book, Jacob Have I Loved, retells the story of Jacob and Esau. It is set on an island in the Chesapeake Bay. The players are twin teenaged girls, Caroline (Jacob) and Sara Louise, called “Wheeze” (Esau). Wheeze is angry at Caroline for most of the book, believing her sister has stolen her birthright. Caroline is a gifted singer and the darling of the island. Wheeze, consumed with jealousy, is a cold presence. Only fishing and nature can soothe her inner tumult. Toward the end of the book, her mother presents the now grown-up Wheeze with the idea of leaving the island, where so much of her unhappiness is mired. The island is sinking anyway, her sister has left for Julliard, and Wheeze has always known she’d rather see mountains than the sea. She begins to realize that a person can make her own decisions, independent of her feelings. That one can reject the pottage, jealousy, and dissatisfaction (no substitute for real life) and begin afresh.

I hope that the pull of all-consuming distractions will lessen over time and I can get off the island, away from the pottage and into a space where my true desires and my reality become one.

Elena bio YAH

Obstacle Course

Dirty towels are stacked on the seat of my walker. An empty coffee mug, water glass, two rolls of toilet paper, and a bottle of Windex are perched on the top towel. The walker is equipped with handlebars; brake lines run from the handles to the wheels. After releasing the brakes, I roll from master bathroom to bedroom. Books, file folders, and black garbage bags, fat with fifteen years of receipts to shred, occupy a corner. I sweep a lonely group of monthly bills ready to be paid from my dresser into a grocery bag, loop and tie it around a handle.

Steering with one hand and steadying my load with the other, I turtle down the hallway. Bath tissue goes to the guest bathroom. I roll past the den into the kitchen. Coffee mug and water glass join the breakfast dishes in the sink. Sticky spots on the floor cause me to cringe, but cringing is followed by dramatic sighing. In my best Scarlett O’Hara voice, I say aloud to nobody: Tomorrow is another day.

Curving around the corner, I enter the laundry room, only to become entangled with my ironing board—it’s the kind designed to store in the wall, but never stays stored in mine. I encourage the walker to duck under the board, pulling, pushing, jerking, and yelling. I’m stuck. Blue liquid spatters from the fractured spray top of the Windex bottle as it smacks the hardwood floor. Like a basketball player trying to hit multiple shots, I hurl the towels one by one toward the rim of my top-loader washing machine. I’m zero for ten.


My orthopedist glances down at the floor as though he’s taking time to gather his thoughts to convey unpleasant news. He looks up and says: “There’s nothing else I can do for your back. Curves greater than sixty degrees (off center) will most likely deteriorate one degree yearly, so in ten years, you can expect greater pain and disability.”

My S-shaped spine glares at me from an X-ray film illuminated by light. He continues, “I don’t do adult scoliosis surgery, so I think it would be best for you to see the neuro man here in town who can follow you and determine if you need surgery now. And help you better manage your pain.”

Since I was twelve years old, I’ve had multiple visits—visit sounds pleasant and benign—to orthopedists and physical therapists. After forty years, you’d think I’d be used to hearing state of my spine speeches. Today, all I hear is finality: “There’s nothing I can do for you…”


“Your spine is curvy,” says this short, curly-haired neurosurgeon dressed in a coat with buttons straining over his paunch.

I can’t suppress a giggle. “My husband says I’m curvaceous.”

“Oh, that’s a good one.” We hit it off like two vaudeville comedians.

While looking straight at me, he asks about the severity of my pain on a scale of 1-10. He takes my hand and helps me descend from the exam table. I stretch and try to touch my toes as he runs his fingers along my spine, tracing from top to bottom, a squatty, fat “S.”

“If you are functional, I prefer not to do surgery until you are well into your sixties. You can’t fool around with the spinal cord. We must ask: when do the benefits outweigh the risks?

I nod, listening. He continues, “I could make you straight—straight in your coffin.”


I sit on my walker to rest after preparing dishes for our Thanksgiving meal. As I stare across the kitchen island’s glossy, black surface, I think of my grandma who had a holiday menu a mile long. My menu has shrunk from feast to famine: one meat, two vegetables, rolls, and store-bought dessert. I feel deficient. My dead grandmother is disappointed in me.

I am a mess. My vertebrae are like a stack of plate-spinners’ china: swaying, unbalanced, ready to crash. My body will not move like I want it to. Thoughts are scattered in my mind. My prayers bounce between Help! and Thank you!

I can, in most moments, stash negativity in a dark corner of my mind and will myself through the messiness of life. But, today, I am depleted. I’m taunted by sunlight streaming across the floor, highlighting dried splats of liquid. Crumbs fill cracks between the floor planks.

Then, I glance up and see light and shadows dancing with the colors of glass in my kitchen window. I laugh at myself. Oh, the absurdity of letting specks of dirt impair my vision.

FullSizeRender(42)Images by Lisa Taylor Phillips

Lisa bio YAH