Time after time I’m refreshed by this obscure line from a nearly forgotten verse on a 7th century koan I studied long ago. When you first approach a Zen koan, through meditation, you can get lost in a labyrinth of intellectual incomprehension. Using what? Whose hand? Finishing what? The yard where? And then you might stop wondering for a second and the instructions surface, clear and direct. As clear as picking up a rake, for instance, or sweeping with a broom.
This is how life is. We always have at hand everything we need to finish up. We know how to do what needs to be done and we know when to quit too. It’s what we don’t need to do when we don’t need to do it that is so puzzling.
If I ever wrote a cookbook, this would be my sole instruction: Use what’s at hand. That stark brevity means, of course, that I could never write a cookbook. But I could make dinner out of limp celery and garbanzo beans, as someone once said.
Similarly inspired by the forlorn kale, spongy mushrooms, forgotten carrots, patient potatoes and canned tomatoes in my kitchen yesterday, I made ratatouille for dinner. Not that it was ratatouille from a book, mind you, but what I simply called ratatouille in a spark of who-me individuality and why-not invention. My daughter was so engaged by the prospect of dinner a la Remy that she instructed me to thin-slice the accompanying sausage and array it like “fallen dominoes” around the circumference of the mush. See? She knew.
We always have the ingredients on hand to finish what we already know how to do.
As I write this, by hand, the sun has just risen in the mists between the surf and the cliffs of Orange County, California. I followed a medical transport van here in the wee-hour darkness, a van that carried my sister. Last week, on the first of what was to be seven days of Colorado skiing, she broke her ankle and her wrist. Back home now, she’s doing what she knows to do using the help at hand. Today, surgery to re-set and secure the bones and hasten recovery.
The thought, the mere thought, of losing the use of one leg and one arm is paralyzing, isn’t it? But here she is, with a medical transport taxi to get her to and fro, a couple of good doctors, a home health attendant, and a sister in the waiting room. I would be here anyway. But now, by virtue of life’s passing, I am her next of kin, her domino.
It turns out none of us is paralyzed.
Today I write with my hand the words that you read. It is the writing that makes for reading and the reading for writing.
We all, each of us, come together where we are, as we are, to make one savory stew, one delectable taste, interdependent and whole. In the way my sister is grateful for me today, I am grateful for you. Together we make a meal.