Posted by: fredricaparlett | December 20, 2011

The reality of spiritual work

You Do My Way, I Do Your Way?
by Fredrica Parlett
The alarm went off at 6:00 A.M. in the cold dark room Rachel was sharing with two other women. She remembered where she was. Again at a special weekend retreat with others following the same spiritual path. Yes, again.
“With others”—why did she always have to be with “others?” As a school teacher she was used to getting up at 6:00 A.M., but Saturdays were different. She could sleep in. She could be alone, free of school children and their erratic behavior. Even her husband, David, usually went off jogging with his friends early Saturday mornings. This was Saturday, but she would have to face other people all day, even David, who was off in the men’s quarters.
One of her roommates was in the shower, and Rachel hoped she could lie in her warm bed a little longer. She heard the water stop and soon Linda emerged with a towel wrapped around her. The other roommate had silently disappeared much earlier to help with breakfast preparations.
“Can we turn the heat on?” Rachel asked irritably.
“Sure,” Linda said, going over to the wall and turning the dial. The noisy fan started up but at least it brought some heat—not enough, but some. And that was how Rachel started her spiritual retreat.
At 7:15, everyone gathered in the meditation hall. John, a tall, thin, rather old man, sat in front facing them, all cross-legged on round cushions or seated on chairs. In a few minutes, everyone stopped arranging their cushions, moving, and coughing. A silence descended, broken only by an occasional car passing in the distance, or a raven croaking, a dog far away barking. John said a few words, expressing his own search to become quiet, to observe what was happening inside. Towards the end, a palpable relaxation spread amongst them, as if they were breathing together.
Rachel indeed felt fidgety at the beginning. Seated on her cushion, one leg began to hurt almost immediately. It took all her attention to stay there without moving. I’ll never get quiet today, she thought. I’m just struggling with this stupid body that wants to move to relieve the pain. And then, suddenly, miraculously, the pain passed. She felt returned to herself.
They moved to the dining room where breakfast was served at narrow tables arranged in a circle. After a moment of silence, a wordless grace, they began to eat. Rachel’s oatmeal was already cool, even colder with the milk. It was hard to swallow. A friend, Eva, was sitting next to her and Rachel started joking about the food and laughing, until she noticed that everyone else had become silent. Oh God, she thought, there I go again, always making a fool of myself. Why didn’t I stay home? I really needed a rest today.
The silence was broken by a man reading out the teams for that day: kitchen, construction, translation, weaving, pottery, sewing, and special study teams (whatever they were, probably something really wonderful from which she suspected she would always be excluded).
She, of course, was assigned to the kitchen. She inwardly groaned when she heard Kathryn’s name read first, which meant Kathryn was in charge of the kitchen that day. Not her favorite leader, definitely not her favorite. Rachel resolved to take on some job, go off in a corner and work by herself. Maybe she would become invisible.
Then her husband, David, of all people, who happened to be part of the planning team for that weekend, stood up. He looked very intellectual with his lock of blond hair over his forehead and his rimless thick glasses.
“Today we are going to try something together. While you are working on your teams this morning, pick one person on your team and try to put yourself in that person’s shoes.” Whatever else David said, Rachel did not hear. Oh God help me, it’s obvious what person I have to choose. . .
Kathryn stood in a circle with the other cooks at one end of the kitchen. She was a large, full-bosomed woman, younger than Rachel. She always wore long print skirts and tops that looked to Rachel as if they had come out of someone’s rag bag, a throwback to the 1960s and flower children. She wore masses of gold costume jewelry around her neck that rattled in a grating way whenever she was chopping vegetables. Rachel, on the other hand, proud of her slim figure, wore skintight designer jeans with sequins on the back pocket and a bright pink, tight-fitting turtleneck top—and high-heeled brown leather boots that came up to her knees. Never mind that her feet would be hurting by the end of the day.
Kathryn opened her white binder in which the day’s menus were carefully encased in plastic. She began slowly turning the many pages, giving the feeling that they were in front of an enormous labor, all to be exactly orchestrated by no other than KATHRYN. Why did she have to make such a big deal out of it? Couldn’t they just kind of figure out what they were going to do as they went along? That’s what she, Rachel, would have done.
But no. Kathryn announced with great solemnity that they had 65 people to serve. And lunch was: a chicken dish requiring that chicken breasts be skinned, carefully de-fatted and then boned, then pounded to a flat shape. Then five chopped vegetables added and a homemade tomato sauce, beginning with skinning the tomatoes after boiling them in water for one minute to loosen the skins. This to be served on pasta, which, thank heaven, would not be homemade. A salad with lettuce, radicchio, arugula, thinly sliced cucumbers, pine nuts, minced green onions, sliced avocado, and pink Texan grapefruit segments with a vinaigrette of special olive oil, lemon juice, raspberry wine vinegar, salt, pepper, fresh thyme, oregano, and chives.      Dessert was to be an open-faced French apple tart, so the apples had to be sliced absolutely perfectly, so that their crescent shape was absolutely uniform. The crescents were to just barely overlap in a circle. She, Kathryn, would make the pastry—would one person like to learn her secrets for making a really tender crust?

Rachel, despite feeling disgusted by this bravado, not to mention the impossibly complicated menu, raised her hand quickly. She knew how to make pie pastry, and she suspected she could roll it out with a lighter touch than Kathryn, but she knew she would have to stay close to this obnoxious person if she were going to try to put herself in Kathryn’s shoes. She looked down at Kathryn’s shoes, which were purple clogs. Yuck. She doubted Kathryn would even remember the exercise, much less do it, she was so full of herself and her role as head cook. And her feet were much too big to fit into Rachel’s boots, that was for sure. She half-smiled at her little private joke.

The remaining seven women were divided into three other teams. Kathryn asked Rachel to gather together all the ingredients for the apple tarts, while she launched the other teams, explaining to them in detail how they were to proceed. Meanwhile on a long, low table at the back of the kitchen, Rachel collected flour, butter, Crisco, a bowl of ice water, the springform pie pans, the Granny Smith apples, knives, peelers, cutting boards and two rolling pins.
Kathryn returned, placing the recipe in its plastic in the exact middle of the table. She told Rachel they would each make two double batches of pastry, for a total of eight single crusts. Three tarts would be cut into ten pieces “for the women” and five into eight pieces “for the men,” for a total of 70, in case anyone dared show up late. They measured the flour and dumped it into their bowls, cut up the butter into thick slices and added it with the gooey Crisco. Then Kathryn insisted that she mix the shortening and flour with a pastry blender.
“Do you mind if I use my fingers instead?” Rachel asked. “It feels so much more—organic.”
Kathryn handed her a pastry blender, practically thrusting it in her face.
“No, fingers are very unsanitary. If you want to try it with two knives, that’s OK but definitely no fingers.”
Rachel took the pastry blender and angrily pressed it down into the bowl, causing a spurt of flour to land on the table. Kathryn said nothing. Rachel walked over to the sink to get a sponge to clean up the mess she had made. As she held the sponge under the faucet with both hands, the shock of the cold water made her start. She pulled her hands back, staring at the faucet as if it had wounded her. Taking the sponge in one hand, she turned off the lever of the faucet. She continued to stand there, immobilized. She was sure she had forgotten something. The cold water had reminded her—but what was it? Then she remembered—she was supposed to put herself in Kathryn’s shoes! Instead she had been reacting in her usual pigheaded way. Was she ever going to learn?
Rachel walked slowly back to the table. When she came next to Kathryn, she was astounded to see that Kathryn, head down, was working the mixture with her fingers! And so, at that moment, Rachel knew that Kathryn had also remembered the exercise to put herself in somebody else’s shoes, and that somebody was Rachel. She pushed her bowl closer to Kathryn’s, picked up the pastry blender, but this time she pushed it down very carefully. Kathryn said nothing.
“Kathryn, what do you do with all this butter that’s stuck in the spaces?”
Kathryn handed her a table knife, smiling.
“Sometimes you just have to use a knife to get it loose.” She watched as Rachel did this.
“It seems to me that with fingers,” Kathryn said, “you can keep covering the butter with flour so it doesn’t stick to your fingers. I’ve always avoided this method, because I’ve been afraid that my fingers will warm up the shortening too much. But it seems to go pretty fast, maybe faster than with the blender?
“I don’t know,” Rachel said. “I guess my mother always did it with her fingers.”
“And I learned to cook from a book, I’m afraid. My mother died when I was only three. My stepmother never let me go into the kitchen. The books I read said use a pastry blender.”
“Oh,” Rachel said softly. They sprinkled ice water on their mixtures, formed balls of dough, wrapped them in Saran wrap, washed their bowls and began their second batches.
Rachel felt terrible. She had been judging this woman who grew up without a mother to teach her to cook. Some of her favorite childhood memories were of cooking with her mother, something they still did together for Thanksgiving and Christmas, a mother-daughter communion.
Once the flour and shortening were in their bowls, they both hesitated, looked at each other and burst out laughing.
“So what do we do now?” Kathryn asked. “You do my way, I do your way?”
“Right,” Rachel said. “We’re at a crossroads. Let’s close our eyes and see what happens.”
“OK, sounds crazy, but let’s try it,” Kathryn said. They closed their eyes. There was a pause, and the rest of the kitchen became silent also, as if the other women instinctively sensed that this was an important moment. But before Rachel could decide whether to grope for the pastry blender or simply insert her fingers into the bowl, she felt Kathryn’s arm come around her shoulders. She in turn reached out with her right arm and encircled Kathryn’s ample waist. In a moment, they released each other.

Then, with eyes closed, the natural movement for Rachel was to put her fingers in the bowl. She heard no scraping of the pastry blender next to her and when she opened her eyes, Kathryn also had her fingers in the bowl. Around them, the murmur of voices and the dull thuds of chicken breasts being flattened resumed with new vigor.

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