“Do you like to cook?” I asked one of my writing
clients a couple of months ago.
“No,” she said. “The last time I cooked was in
That didn’t seem to bother her a bit. But it bothers me that I don’t enjoy the dicing and chopping it takes to prep for a meal. I think I should like it. I’ve seen how people gather in the kitchen when someone is stirring something savory on the stove. But that isn’t me. Sometimes I blame my kitchen avoidance on an incident that occurred half a century ago. I know, I ought to be over it by now. But please indulge me as I tell you the story that I’ve been using for decades as an excuse for seeing Whole Foods, Gelson’s and Bristol Farms as my personal chefs.
Back in the late sixties, I spent all day with a girlfriend, Camilia, in the kitchen of my house in Laurel Canyon, making a Greek dish called Moussaka. The recipe called for two pounds of lean ground
lamb, two large eggplants, russet potatoes, plum tomatoes, red wine, olive oil, onion, a few seasonings and the pièce de résistance – a Bechamel white sauce that involved whisking melted butter, flour, milk and bay leaves over a low heat until it became smooth and thick. I can still see Camilia’s long shiny blonde hair that she held behind her neck with one hand and stirred with the other one. We kept taking turns, it required split second timing, and we nailed it.
No lumps or bubbles.
At dinner that night with Camilia’s boyfriend, my boyfriend and two other couples, I watched the faces around the table as they
tasted our masterpiece. Everyone oohed and aahed, we felt proud – until my boyfriend put a forkful in his mouth and spit it back onto his plate. I can’t imagine why I thought he would like it. All he ever ate was ground beef, mac and cheese, Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup and scrambled eggs, the thing his mother used to feed him. I avoided the kitchen after that, I like to say it was his fault, but the truth is that while I enjoy eating (great chefs need great eaters), preparing the food is not in my repertoire.
The issue here, however, is not about preparing food, per se. It’s about judging anything that you think you should want to do but you just don’t. It’s about not comparing what you do to what someone else does. It’s about performing any task you find unpleasant and being so present for it, it brings you satisfaction and you begin to enjoy it. I was reading a talk by Pema Chodron about cooking as a spiritual practice. She reminds us that as we aspire to be mindful in our activities, all of our emotions come into play. We burn things or we ace them. We undercook things or we take take them out of the oven at the perfect time. We fail, we succeed, we’re clumsy, we’re adept and most of us don’t like washing dishes. But we do it anyway because it needs to be done.
The Zen koan, “chop wood, carry water,” means that doing anything that requires humility and commitment helps us reach a higher level of awareness. There is a Zen story about a young monk in a monastery who dreamed of becoming enlightened, of being a great man. But every morning, the Abbot directed him to chop wood for the fire and carry water to the kitchen for cooking.
“All I do is chop wood and carry water,” he grumble one day. “I want to be great like you.”
“Great is not what you imagine,” the Abbot said. “I spend all my time reading scrolls and studying. Just remember this:
Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.
After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.
Being enlightened doesn’t mean sitting on a silver throne, spewing platitudes and having people bring you whatever you want. It’s
about being real, humble, vulnerable and accepting. Being an example of compassion when compassion is difficult. As the young monk continued to chop wood and carry water, he stopped feeling like a victim. He came to understand that while it appeared that nothing was changing on the outside, everything was changing on the inside. He learned that being the King, being at the top of the
heap, is impermanent. What goes up always comes down. A wise friend of mine once said, “When you kneel down to pray, you might as well just stay there.”
Maybe I should take a job as a sous chef to find a higher purpose in the food department. Or maybe I should skip that altogether,
accept that cooking is not my jam and honor the challenging work I already do: writing every morning, working on complicated crafts, checking on friends who need it, being kind when it’s hard and cleaning up piles of unconsciousness that lie around in my home.
Any task that we do, any time we commit to something with determination and humility, we’re taking a step on the ladder to
higher mindfulness and compassion for our fellow human beings. Maybe I’d be more popular if I had a pot of chicken soup simmering on the stove, but if I continue to face the tasks in front of me with gratitude and dedication, if Icontinue to be kind in tough circumstances, maybe friends will bring me some chicken
soup, just because they like being around me.