BY HOLLIS GIAMMATTEO
Our granddaughter, at age four, had been dealt a blow. Beloved and central her whole life thus far, with the arrival of a baby sister—an event unasked for—her world tilted. She would recede behind the couch or the parental knees, her expression toggling between bafflement and betrayal. One evening, she was overheard to ask, “How do you make someone dead?” Ever patient, ever loving, her father replied, “I will have to think about that,” and most probably, he meant it. Oh, the torments change brings to all.
Post-The Holidays, we decided to change our way of eating, and shift to eating lighter and earlier and less. Having agreed enthusiastically, I toppled quickly from acquiescence to resentment. “Food like love is a deeply emotional matter,” Julia Child declared upon some occasion. But what did this portend?
My days are organized around the various pursuits involving food. There is the grand joy of breakfast—an egg scramble with vegetable sauté, the dill sprinkle, the lustrous yogurt plop. Then espresso and a cookie. At the table, thanks are given, literature consumed, hunger slackened. Food—its acquisition, preparation, consumption, and storage—is a means of working against the scary forces of change. One day I clocked my food related activities at four to five hours a day, excluding grocery shopping. Foregoing all that presumed liberation from “The Hassle,” so we signed up for a meal service, a very good one as far as these things go. The food was sustainably sourced and recyclably packaged. It was pretty to behold. It was vegan and arrived pre-dawn. But I quickly realized that the removal of “The Hassle” left a void. I liked the planning and shopping and cooking. I have the time to do it and this revelation led to further thought—the effort expended on these tasks accrues to reverence. I, a human animal, require food; therefore, treating this need with care—joy, even—shows reverence for a thing so basic as to be held in disregard.
What would be gained in turning that over to our meal service, however good and wholesome?
A memory blooms: A meditation retreat in the California desert, in silence, but for dharma talks. Ruth Dennison, savior of stray and injured animals, Prussian in person and tone, a pioneering Vipassana teacher, a pop of color in the dessert’s dun palette. She is a weather of joys and stern reprimands. Trailed by an array of dachshunds, Ruth sweeps into her halls—dining, meditation. Reveries of gratitude occur reliably at lunch. Our days are stripped of all distraction; food is the day’s one exclamation mark. The main meal, lunch, bifurcates the sameness and the silence. After the mindful shuffle toward trays, the slow advance through the serving line, the claiming of one’s place, it is all one can do not to fall upon one’s food. But we must wait for Ruth, her sweeping entrance with the dogs, the dreaded panegyric. The room roils with feeling: impatience, fortitude, rage. Stomachs writhe in the tension between craving and restraint; stomachs wait. Finally, Ruth sweeps, and begins, “study the food in your bowl; this leaf of lettuce; this tomato,” and continues, “sun and rain have given us this food,” and unbelievably goes on, “you are being fed the air; you are ingesting sky.”
Something shifts. Avarice and impatience give way to curiosity, which expands toward grace and gratitude. The moment, a prison, is now merely space, a space of breath, of breathing. Ruth finishes, and leaves. We watch her, breathe out as one, and slowly start to eat.
Now, these 30 years later, this moment presents itself before the advance on my morning scramble.
It can be argued that such awareness can effect change. It could be argued that reverence for the humble arts invites a pause in which to reflect on what Thich Nhat Hanh termed “interbeing”—the sun, rain, earth, seed, tomato, bits of these that linger on the tongue.
We discontinued Thistle and reengaged “The Hassle” of preparing our food.
When we moved into our home some 20 years ago, the living room walls were the color of butternut squash, and I thought myself enchanted. Six long years of not living in the living room followed before I realized that the color and the layout of the room were horrid. A remodel, boldly embarked upon by my irrepressible wife, and a changing of the color guard followed. Still, I hand-wrung, afraid of change. Similarly in the garden, unknown stuff abounded and bloomed, and there, too, I feared doing harm to what seemed so deliberately established. I engaged experts to teach me what was what, and how to tend. It was as if I had to hold my breath and tiptoe, undeserving of my castle. My role was one of taking care rather than taking possession. Recognizing the disproportion of my fear, I tracked down some knowledge and became Master Gardener, enrolled in a landscape/horticulture program, started a gardening business. Never underestimate anxiety as a great motivator. The butternut squash gave way to a calming shade of blue called Glacier Stream. The garden, too, utterly transformed into a wonderland of ferns, bulbs, flowering shrubs, and trees, a veritable park from what had truly been a hodgepodge.
This is all a long way from the betrayal sustained by our little granddaughter wrestling with the enormous change befallen her but speaks to the inexorable nature of change. I am happy to report, as the months unfolded, betrayal made room for her curiosity, which in turn bloomed into mirth—mirth and affection. But, oh my, it was from brokenness that love began to flourish.
Change sought; change inflicted. One connotes hope and aspiration; the other, torment, ruin, blame. We stand under its great canopy, gazing up into falling blossoms, in thrall to movement.
One morning, The Atlantic asked its readers this: “What about your life are you most afraid to change, and why? Send us an audio clip, no longer than three minutes.”
A practicing Buddhist for more than 30 years, Hollis Giammatteo has sought experiences that challenge her practice, from teaching writing to working with the elderly. She co-founded The Wilma Theater in Philadelphia, and was a resident playwright for The Rhode Island Feminist Theatre. Giammatteo has published in a variety of magazines and her memoir, The Shelf Life of Ashes, was released in 2016 by She Writes Press.