Last Saturday, while I was slicing mushrooms (which is a daily preparatory task at the restaurant), I clipped the end of the index finger on my left hand, just to the right of the fingernail. I was trying to work too fast and not paying attention to the moment. The cut was not severe, just painful. I took a little sliver, a little deeper than the thickness of my skin. Last night, while slicing mushrooms, I did it again – in the same place and for the same reason. At this rate, give me four or five years and my index and little fingers will be a matched set. Two things have to happen when I go back tomorrow: I have to pay attention and I can’t flinch. I have to trust that I can handle the knife. If I get scared, I’ll chop off my whole hand.
We had a lot of prep work to do, which is usually the case on Wednesdays, since the restaurant is a bit slower we can get ready for the weekend. I was working down my usual checklist when Robert asked me if I wanted to start making the demi-glace and the chicken stock, which are our two base stocks. I was excited because his question meant he trusted me enough to do it.
The entire process takes a couple of days. I started by putting the veal bones on baking sheets, and the chicken bones on other sheets, and roasting them until they were dark and much of the fat had cooked out, which took about an hour. From there, the chicken went into the giant stockpot, but there was more to do with the veal bones. I put the baking sheet on top of the stove, turned on the burners, and then poured red wine over the top of the bones to free the bones from the pan and to flavor them. When the wine had reduced, they went in another stockpot. While the bones were in the oven, I spent the hour preparing the mirepoix, a mixture of rough chopped celery, carrots, and onions, along with a bunch of garlic and fresh herbs, which was added to each pot and then both were filled with water and set to simmer. They cooked all night last night and on through the day, by which time about half of the liquid will have evaporated. This afternoon, Robert will drain off the liquid, discard the bones, put the stocks back in the pots and let them reduce again until a rich, concentrated stock is produced – which is about one-eighth in volume of what we had at the start of the process — and becomes the base for our sauces and soups.
Both stocks are time consuming and we make them both about once a week. When it comes down to it, at least half of the time we spend in the kitchen is preparing to cook the meals. We have things to slice, dressings and sauces to make, meat to trim, bread to bake. If we don’t prepare well, we don’t perform well when it comes time to serve the meals. Preparation is more than a matter of filling pans and slicing vegetables. It is also a reminder of the basics of what we do, the foundational acts that make for good food. I’ve come to find the prep work to be intensely satisfying and meaningful. There’s almost a Zen-like quality to it, offering me the chance to be present in the moment where there is nothing but me and the quality and intentionality of my actions.
I got up this morning and began to do the prep work for writing today by opening a couple of the books I mentioned yesterday. I got caught up in the moment there as well, and used up my morning time, so I’m just now getting to the journal. I started with Parker J. Palmer, who was questioning the perceived polarity between an active life and a contemplative life. For those of us who are more activist than meditative, “we need a spirituality which affirms and guides our efforts to act in ways that resonate with our innermost being and reality, ways that embody the vitalities God gave us at birth, ways that serve the great works of justice, peace, and love.” (9)
“The core message of all the great spiritual traditions,” he says in another place, “is, ‘Do not be afraid.’ Rather be confident that life is good and trustworthy” (8).
“Do not be afraid,” were the angel’s words to Mary when he came to inform her of the part she would play in the Incarnational Drama.
Mary is the metaphor for Madeleine L’Engle as she talks about art as incarnational activity.
“As for Mary, she was little more than a child when the angel came to her; she had not lost her child’s creative acceptance of the realities moving on the other side of the everyday world. We lose our ability to see angels as we grow older, and that is a tragic loss. . . . In art, either as creators or participators, we are helped to remember some of the glorious things we have forgotten, and some of the terrible things we are asked to endure, we who are children of God by adoption and grace.” (18-19)
I’m an activist at heart. Though I understand the need for me to live in the creative tension between the poles of action and contemplation, my faith is most alive when justice rolls down like water, rather than waiting for the Still, Small Voice. I can spend all day chopping lettuce and stuffing pot stickers because I know I’m getting ready, that I am alive in the moment. Put me in a committee meeting like the one I sat through Tuesday night where we hashed over some relational issues in our church – again – and left without doing much more than deciding to talk some more, and I go crazy. Enough talk. Act. Be not afraid. Faith in action gives me hope and courage because it is incarnational: God’s love has skin on once again.
My last reading of the morning, was one of Nathan Brown’s poems. I was drawn to it by the title.
Makes No Sense
Even with the invisible anvils time
has tied to my neck and shoulders,
I smile more that I used to, raise
my head skyward and laugh with God.
Even with all the pennies lost
down the drain, the occasional
minor fortunes washed away
in a flood of bad decisions,
I am more grateful than I used to be.
I cherish each minute awarded
like a quarter’s-worth of time
on the mechanical horse in front
of the old grocery store.
Even though people are worse
than I had initially suspected
as a young man — full of crap
beyond imagination — I love them
more than ever, want to play
in their lives like a pony in the edges
of a pond, occasionally stopping
to take a long deep drink.
As I read the poem, I could see Nathan sitting in the coffee shop in Norman, Oklahoma where he writes everyday, doing the creative cutting and chopping it takes to make such a beautiful offering. I thought about the beautiful plates we sent out to those who ate in our restaurant last night because we were well prepared. Every move matters. Every action holds the possibility of incarnation, no matter how apparently insignificant.
Don’t be afraid.
PS — Again, you can get Nathan’s book, Suffer the Little Voices, by contacting him at firstname.lastname@example.org.