I’m in the kitchen at Mountain Lamp Community with two other women as we prepare dinner for the Harvest Retreat. It’s a Saturday afternoon in October—outside, bees float among the leaves of the plum tree, wavering in and out of the cool, patchy sun. Inside, the three of us laugh nervously as we huddle over a recipe on the counter. We’re filling in for the scheduled cook, who is ill, and none of us have prepared this particular dish before: Beet Cabbage Soup with Red Beans, a soup that will require much chopping and dicing and peeling and shredding. It will need our full attention. We have two hours. Timing will be everything.
We’ve assembled all the ingredients from the various storehouses on the property, and they lie scattered on the countertops: vermilion beets, bright orange carrots, pounds of red potatoes, a cabbage as big as my head. There are twelve onions and two bunches of celery, many cans of tomatoes and tiny bags of caraway seeds, and dill. There are bricks of cheese and loaves of bread and heads of red, frilly lettuce. For a moment, the three of us look at the food the way one might look at recalcitrant children, willing the ingredients to assemble themselves into a meal. Then we take a deep breath, and begin.
We quickly divide up the tasks: first the onions, celery, carrots; then the beets, potatoes, cabbage. We find the biggest stockpot we can, stainless steel with sturdy handles, and pour in dollops of olive oil. We find cutting boards, knives, peelers, aprons. Soon we’re all chopping, the sound of the knives mixing with the crackle of oil, our voices lowering to a murmur as we ask each other, “What next? What next?” The smell of celery and onions softening in warm oil begins to fill the kitchen. We move from cutting board to stove and back to the recipe, which is already spattered with onion juice and the blood of what seems like a hundred beets.
Outside, I know the rest of the retreatants are doing a walking meditation up the hillside behind the zendo. I imagine them walking slowly, mindfully, their hands held calmly in front of their hearts, one after the other. I imagine the breeze touching their faces, one by one, and the steady concentration as they move their weight from one foot to the next. I long to be out there with them, though walking meditation has always been difficult for me: my body balks at moving so slowly, and I always end up tailgating the person in front of me. My attention, drawn every which way, rarely stays with my breath or my body, but flies out to notice and comment upon the changing leaves, everyone’s socks, the expression of laughing serenity on the Buddha’s face.
Still, I want to be out there, rather than in here, where I’m finding cooking meditation to be the most challenging of all. Every so often I remember to breathe, to pay attention to each slice of the carrot, each chunk of potato. Every so often I try to open my heart as I cook, to allow loving-kindness as an ingredient. But, more often, I’m rushing from task to task, worried the soup will not be good, or fantasizing that it’s so good, praise and joy will be heaped upon our heads.
Every so often I remember to breathe, to pay attention to each slice of the carrot, each chunk of potato.
And so, this particular meditation proceeds as all practices do, fraught with pitfalls. And, as with any other practice, cooking meditation brings to light all that I most love and loathe about myself. For a few moments I am with the soup as it comes to its final simmer, then suddenly I’m hours into the future, after the soup has been eaten and is gone. For a moment I’m fully attentive to the caraway seeds as they sprinkle from my fingers, but the next moment I dump in the dill while thinking about the meditators stepping so mindfully outside. I watch the soup. Even before the soup’s eaten, I’m flush with shame at its failure. The next moment, I’m swollen with pride at its success.
By 6:00 we manage to have two pots of soup on the L-shaped picnic table outside the cottage. We have bread and slices of cheese. We have tomatoes arranged in pretty bowls. But we’ve forgotten the rice, and Danna rushes off to fetch it. The bees stagger above the table, already drunk on plums. When Danna returns we stand in a circle, hands linked, to recite the five contemplations: “This food is the gift of the whole universe, the earth, the sky, and much hard work.…” I shift a little on my feet, anxiety rising. We stand in line, ladling soup into our bowls. The line moves slowly. The soup is rich and red, steaming as the evening turns cool. We sit down, and I watch out of the corner of my eye as people raise spoons to their lips.
I lift my own spoon, and taste. I taste all of our work, there in the broth. And I have to say it tastes good, this soup made by three women breathing in and out, aware as they could be at any one moment among the heaps of produce and cans of beans. The soup tastes good. In a little while it will be gone. And with this awareness on our tongues, we eat.