A Very Narrow Bridge

The world is a very narrow bridge; the important thing is not to be afraid. ~Nachman of Breslov

Category: Food

Unnamed, not Unknown.

I am reasonably sure he’d say he’s just getting the bagels ready.

I accept that. That is what he’s doing, after all.

Across the room, as the rest of us finish praying through shacharit (the morning service), the guy who’s in charge of the bagels is getting the juice and milk; the jam, peanut butter, and cream cheese out of the dorm-sized fridge in the corner—and he’s toasting bagels, four at a time.

And that’s all he’s doing; he’s getting the bagels ready.

I want to say he’s doing something profoundly spiritual. I want to say he’s connecting us—to one another and to the Divine. But to name what he’s doing and to call it Significant ruins it. It makes it about me—about what I want it to be. It’s like this:

The problem is that ego can convert anything to its own use, even spirituality.  Ego is constantly attempting to acquire and apply the teachings of spirituality for its own benefit.  The teachings are treated as an external thing, external to “me,” a philosophy which we try to imitate.  We do not actually want to identify with or become the teachings.
(Chögyam Trungpa: Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism, p13)

I was going to write about how male spirituality is different from female spirituality. How all the talks and meditation sessions and yoga classes are so dominated by women. I was going to write about how men can be uncomfortable with that, but that maybe men’s authentic spirituality is one of action without calling it spirituality. It is. But it’s not just men’s spirituality that functions that way.

I spent much of my life uncomfortable with the word “spiritual.” It seemed fluffy and goofy and for guys who run around in kaftans with heads of garlic on strings around their neck. What I really thought was that it seemed weak and unintellectual.

I always considered the source of my power to be my brain. I could name things, understand things, remember things very well and very fast. And that’s not a bad thing. Naming has its place. Think about this:

For us, the naming represents a celebration of becoming aware, of knowing the universe at a different level than we had known before. One of my favorite examples is something that today we just take for granted. It’s called the electron. But there was a time before anyone ever dreamed that such an object could exist. In fact, we know the first person who had that dream. It’s a guy named G.J. Stoney. He was an electrochemist in England, and he said, “Hmm, there’s a funny bit of possibility that there’s a bit of matter smaller than an atom.” He was a person who later actually named the object the electron. So what does the naming do for us? Well, once we know it’s there, we can start to use it. And, boy, we’re using it at the very instant with the electrons that we’re manipulating to talk back and forth.
S. James Gates (On Being, June 6, 2013)

You wouldn’t be reading this now if not for the electron. Given the fact that there are probably about seven of you reading this, that’s less important than the fact that I wouldn’t be writing this now if it weren’t for G.J. Stoney and the electron he named. And that’s really only important because this was an assignment from my havruta.

We need to name things. We need to do it to make things work. But we also need not to be so smart.

I need not to be so smart.

As a man, I am a namer. A knower. Most likely a know-it-all.

And it’s been very hard for me to let go of that. And it always will be.

But understanding and knowing are not the same thing. Human beings can understand on a level beyond knowing and naming.  We can just get the bagels ready.

Put the bagels in the toaster. They will pop up.  After that, put them on the plate.


Here I am in the bulk aisle of the grocery store. I have come here to impress a woman. I want her to know that I can actually cook, rather than simply apply heat to processed foods. I am completely okay with the possibility that she will find this sexy.

But cooking is slow. The black beans I buy need to soak for something like four hours before I can even cook them. Brown rice requires fifty minutes of planning ahead before it can be eaten. Tomatoes and onions, purchased fresh, will need to be chopped, and not dumped from a can. Ideally, fresh produce will be from a once-a-week farmer’s market and, though I believe in locally-grown food and supporting local businesses, this requires more scheduling than reading the sourcing information at the grocery store. The black beans and rice I crave need almost a week’s notice before they can become a dinner I can serve this woman to get her to reward me with a smile.

Compare this with a trip to the prepared section of the same grocery store, which uses some locally sourced, mostly sanely produced ingredients to make convenient items I can bring home and eat without any preparation and very little thought. Total time to the table: about twenty minutes, including joining my fellow DC residents in the snaking “15 items or fewer” express lines. But, you know, I really like this woman, so I continue with my shopping and avoid the delicious macaroni and cheese tempting me on the hot prepared food table.

Somehow, by the time I’ve gotten home, cooking to impress has taken on a life of its own and I’ve made a deal with myself that I will make almost all the meals I eat at home from actual ingredients—the basic building blocks that cooperate to become food. I will have to cooperate with them, too.

Now my kitchen, mostly bare for years, is more or less fully stocked and I have to think about what I eat. My refrigerator is filled with expensive fresh vegetables that I have to be diligent about using. I have to make time for cooking, too. Beans and rice wait in jars in my cupboards, but they are useless to me if I haven’t put some thought into when I will eat them, so I have to think about when I will cook. Getting home late, like from a yoga class ending at 9:30 or 10:00, means I have to start making dinner before I leave the house.

I find myself preparing things that I may want to eat much later. The salad I made the other night, for example, didn’t get eaten tonight. I made it because I wanted to use the cucumber and peppers I had and I figured I could bring it for lunch. I haven’t fermented anything yet, but it’s probably only a matter of time.

Slow food is mindful food. I catch myself appreciating the aesthetics of what I eat—the shapes and colors of vegetables, the texture of tofu, the patterns on fish. The chopping, pouring, boiling, frying, and baking. Mindful food is holy food and holy food is shared. I consider how I can feed people with what I make, rather than just grabbing something for myself. The very idea of sharing food makes me enjoy what I’m cooking more. The satisfaction starts when I look in the cupboard or the fridge and begin mixing things in my mind.

I am  eating less, and only in part because I am too lazy to cook more. Eating less means buying less and wasting less, which makes my food into a reminder of how much food we waste as a country.

None of this is earth-shattering. I have experienced much of this before (hence my ability to actually cook and understand what to buy in the bulk aisle), but it’s been a while, so it feels sort of like I’m returning to something I like about myself, starting something in the middle, which always feels good. I’m not sure if I’ve impressed the woman who revived this all in me. Maybe that will have to wait until I make pickles or something, but in the meantime she seems to like it when I go to the farmer’s market with her.