Ingredients on hand

March 20th, 2008

Using what’s at hand, he finished up the yard. He could use it and know when to quit.

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.


  1. Beautiful writing, Karen. Best wishes to your healing sister. And I am so impressed that you made ratatouille a la Remy! That movie moved me.

    Comment by Judy Merrill-Smith — March 21, 2008 @ 12:35 am

  2. I had to laugh. I just sat down after serving a meal made out of what was on hand because I just had no other inspiration in my cold-medicine influenced mind. My husband, while eating all the food in front of him, politely told me that there was no need to save that recipe (I have always told him to give honest criticism so I know whether to repeat something). And my 2 yr old who demanded to try the “crunchy chicken” the minute it came out of the oven wanted nothing to do with it after the first bite. It was fine with me, though.

    Comment by Anonymous — March 21, 2008 @ 12:41 am

  3. Judy, to be sure, the movie was a masterwork. Not so my ratatouille, which wasn’t made a la Remy so much as enjoyed that way.

    And to the nameless one, to truly savor the puritive, curative aspect of anonymity, you must divest your family of opinions. Or at least, as you have, opinions that matter to you!

    Comment by Karen — March 21, 2008 @ 1:13 am

  4. I believe in using what’s at hand. The problem is seeing what is there. And the next problem is holding on to things to keep them at hand because “you just never know.”

    Comment by marta — March 21, 2008 @ 2:26 am

  5. And what a yummy meal it is!

    After dining on carrots, celery, cheese, pepperoni, and crackers; all lovingly cut up and placed into a muffin pan for my toddler’s dining pleasure, it was delightful to stop here and know I’m not alone. Thank you for serving up such delicious words.

    Comment by Sarina — March 21, 2008 @ 2:35 am

  6. i needed this gentle reminder this evening…i’m leaving feeling ever so grateful to be stirred up in the mix.
    happy spring, karen.

    Comment by Kirsten Michelle — March 21, 2008 @ 2:57 am

  7. I send my love to your injured Sister. I am recovering from a reset broken wrist!
    We always seem to love our mish-mash left over meals the best!

    Comment by Anonymous — March 21, 2008 @ 7:14 am

  8. it’s just after 5 pm here in japan which means i’m cooking dinner…yes and surfin’ da net all at once. what am i making? lentil stew. why? because all i’ve got in the kitchen is lentils, a very questionable potato, a carrot and miso paste. we’ll see how it all turns out.

    mmmmmm, yummy. loved this post. it was just enough to fill a hungry soul.

    Comment by ladybug-zen — March 21, 2008 @ 8:18 am

  9. That was a great meal! I’m going to read it again! Your words are so obvious….Thank you!

    Comment by desert mom — March 21, 2008 @ 1:57 pm

  10. I love how you see so clearly the connectedness in every aspect of life. Best wishes for a speedy recovery for your sis!

    Comment by Shannon — March 21, 2008 @ 2:36 pm

  11. Delicious words to chew on!

    Comment by Shalet — March 21, 2008 @ 9:07 pm

  12. Also serving questionable “recipes” this evening.

    I do pretty well with using what’s on hand. However, I tend to get a bit carried away with trying to make sure that what I have on hand is everything anyone could possibly need!

    Take care of Sis!

    Comment by Mama Zen — March 21, 2008 @ 10:45 pm

  13. so very connective.
    thank you.

    Comment by jessamyn — March 22, 2008 @ 12:39 am

  14. Healing wishes for your sister.
    I love the meal we are creating together.

    Comment by bella — March 22, 2008 @ 1:21 am

  15. Yum.

    Comment by Jena Strong — March 22, 2008 @ 4:38 pm

  16. Your description of the cookbook you’d write made me laugh but I think you could write one anyway.

    Comment by Mary Ann (Moanna) — March 22, 2008 @ 7:41 pm

  17. what a tasty meal.

    i think you’d write a fabulous cookbook.


    Comment by mb — March 23, 2008 @ 3:39 pm

  18. Yes–everything you need to finish up is always at hand. Truly we need no more–no less. I have been settling into this particular kind of magic these days and so this post resonates with me strongly. Thanks for your beautiful words again Karen.

    Comment by Meg Casey — March 26, 2008 @ 10:08 pm

  19. “It turns out none of us is paralyzed.” I’m taking phrases and using them to turn my life around. This will be one of them. I resonates in my heart. Thank you.

    Comment by Honey — March 30, 2008 @ 5:24 pm

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