Sunday, October 10, 2010

The abundant plate

Yesterday at First Watch I looked at my plate, contemplating the grace I learned at my first retreat:
    I am thankful for this food,
    the work of many hands
    and the sharing of other forms of life.
The English muffin.  I pictured a field of wheat rippling in the wind - nothing is prettier.  It had to be plowed, killing some little field mice, I suppose, and worms, who knows what other life.  I am not eating meat at this meal, but my eating interrupts the life cycle of other forms of life, plant and animal.

Then wheat is planted, how?  probably by big machines.  The sprouts grow in the sun and rain.  They are harvested by another machine; these machines are made of metals mined from the earth, someone sits in them doing this tedious necessary job hour after hour. 

Here are the harvested sheaves.  I don’t know what is done now, vague notions of wheat and chaff.  A truck takes it to a factory whose existence changes a town.  And so on.  My mind didn’t stay that long on the complexities of the muffin.  Images flowed through my mind, the muffins trucked here, the tires leaving their fine deposit of rubber on the roads.

On to the eggs.  Whoops, I pictured the chickens crowded into their cages.  An uncomfortable thought.  Move on from that.  The mushrooms - I was having mushroom caps with cheese (from the milk of captive cows) - I asked Tom, what does a mushroom farm look like?  He has seen one, in the basement of the old Barber mansion in his home town.  It smells earthy, moldy.

Too much to think about sitting there looking at this plate, which also contained potatoes someone had to dig up, though surely not one worker with a spade but again a machine.  Then, coffee.  The whole world had come together for this breakfast, in which I was eating and disturbing all sorts of life forms (pass the strawberry jelly).  Aware of my tremendous luxury, I could only be hugely grateful.  I tucked in.  We didn’t talk much as we ate.  I felt more like a millworker, which my grandfathers were, in my pleasure in this food than like a lady.
This luxury is all over in my life, the privileged life of a westerner with a secure income and good medical coverage.  Many hands and backs make this life.  We can even afford medical care for the little cat, Sheba, who went to emergency yesterday morning with an upper respiratory infection, and had her little lungs x-rayed, and got an antibiotic. 

Somewhere within all this gratitude is also a sense of humility, if not shame.  I consume so much, waste so much.  Small example:  I let half my home fries go yesterday, too full, and they went back to the kitchen to be thrown away, good food that I could have taken home.  But it goes much further - the gas used to drive there, for example.  Don’t think about the clothes you're wearing, and how they were made in China.

I am not recommending guilt.  It is useless.  You can, however, regret an action, and vow that next time you will bring the potatoes home and use them, or even that you will cook at home, where you can use eggs from cage-free hens . . . Zen does not ask us to be perfect.  What it asks of us is primarily to have the rich, full experience of the moment, of the abundant plate before us.  To be aware.  Life complete with its joys and somber ramifications.  Tactile, present life, not so much about words or thinking, either, but words (and the occasional picture) are what I  have to work with here.
[image:  Abundant autumn:  the stream in Overbrook ravine.]

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