Between the Bread and the Butter
One Saturday morning last winter, I was holed up in our guest bedroom/office, hunched over the portable computer, my head stuffed full of things undone, when I looked up and saw the sky clearing, the large, bare maple tree that my wife and I had planted ten years ago just starting to throw a wispy shadow on the deep drifts of snow that had recently covered up the wet January thaw. I shut down the computer, grabbed thick gray socks and my old fawn-colored work boots, and headed toward the back porch.
For many, winter in Vermont is about downhill or cross-country skiing, but for me it has always been about snowshoeing. It's one of the few outdoor sports that has yet to be discovered by glossy magazines, it requires no special apparel or lift tickets, and it's best done alone, thus well suited to the New England character. So I strapped on my Sherpa Snow-Claws, which are narrow and designed for climbing steep, icy slopes, and set out up our mountain.
As I started up the old logging road, I was still mentally back at the computer, worrying over unfinished projects. But the sky had now completely cleared, turning a pure, soft winter blue, and I started to focus on the sound of the snowshoes making a rhythmic whuff and scrunch as they settled through the deep snow and the "ha" and "sa" of breathing in and out. With a thick wool cap down over my ears, the sound of my own breathing cleared my mind wonderfully, an icy tonic like the aching shock of jumping into a Vermont pond in August, fed by the trickle of a fern-scented mountain stream. As I moved through stands of hickory, sugar maple, red maple, white and black birch, dying chestnuts, and the occasional large oak missed by Greg Squires, a local logger, I picked up the pace, in full gear, moving quickly up the last incline, and then came out on top of the world. In a small clearing at the peak, I could see the large chain of the Adirondacks, the open, windswept hayfields of New York State, and feel the cold wind on my forehead, stinging but refreshing from the hot climb. There was nothing else in that moment except the wind, the snow, and my breath.
It should be noted that it's not much of a trick to feel the infinite on top of a mountain on a cold, sunny January day-- it's finding the infinite in the everyday that proves more difficult. Of course, our eighteen-month-old son, like any other young child, has no trouble with this. Given a moment's inattention, he makes a lurching escape down the driveway to the brook, followed closely by a frantic parent, where he enthusiastically pitches rocks into the knee-deep water just down from the culvert. This is an all-consuming proposition, one that seemingly has no limits. After a full hour of this activity, he has just warmed up to the task at hand. He is totally living the moment, the past and future having no meaning whatever.
Although in recent months I have taken to pitching rocks along with my son, I have always found the kitchen a good place to focus the mind. As Steven Lewis notes in Zen and The Art of Fatherhood, it is between the bread and the butter that the great moments of life are lived, where enjoying a meal is an end in itself, where the little bits and pieces of daily life are all-encompassing, pushing out the past and future. I would add that chopping onions, sautéing stew meat, or rolling out pie dough are all handy for shutting down our inner conversations. I am always too worried about burning garlic or overcooking custard to give a moment's thought to the meaning of existence. Perhaps, in an odd way, that is when we come closest to really living: when we are consumed with the present, unaware of a greater context.
After supper in the summer, our family always takes a walk to watch the bees floating down into the hive, or into the upper fields to check on the berry crop, or across the road to visit the local cemetery to read the inscriptions. The one that I most cherish (other than old Fred Woodcock's tombstone, which features a carved likeness of a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer) was written by Urana Sulliff, wife of John, who died in 1835. As was the custom in the nineteenth century, she sends a stern warning from beyond the grave. She notes that she was "once beloved like you" and asks us to stop to "take another view" and then ends her plea with these words: "No longer then on future time rely, improve the present and prepare to die." Harsh words? Perhaps. But in this holiday season toward the end of this second millennium, I am happy to be present and accounted for in the kitchen, merrily engaged in our family's seasonal culinary rituals, knowing that my short time on this earth is well spent between the bread and the butter.