Sandy Boucher on the dharma of friendship, grief, and macaroni.
As I make my way through the ragged terrain of each day, now that nothing is predictable–our world tipped sideways by multiple threats and disasters—I sometimes wind up in the slough of despond of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. Other times, I arrive in the heart of the great dharmic truths and the words I have chanted hundreds of times — that only now vibrate out to my very fingertips.
Time has been altered. The supposed continuity has broken into discrete chunks in which I am called upon to drop all expectations and step forward into the tyranny of now. When whatever small drama is lived through, I’m expelled — like the lady shot from the cannon — to land in the next task or emergency. My early morning fantasy of what I might expect today slides quietly out the door, blasted by a phone call, buried under email, or shredded by an unanticipated visit. I must abandon my agenda and follow the requirements of whatever unfolds before my eyes.
In these deadly days, we are calling out for that primal protection. Where can we find it but in each other?
Sometimes, I see this lifestyle as the perfect vehicle for spiritual practice: Be here. Open fully to whatever presents itself — life so urgent, so gritty. I know that outside my door lurks an invisible something in the air that has carried away so many thousands of human beings. Sometimes I forget its existence and go outside without a mask, but then that naked feeling arrives, the dream’s sudden awareness — “Eek, what’s missing!?” I come to my senses and remember: take care.
Still, simple tasks may be reliably accomplished, particularly those that express our spiritual understanding, like the actions of the bodhisattva who cares for the welfare of others. I get excited about something as basic and routine as taking a meal to a friend who has just had surgery. Surely there will not be complications or difficulties presented here, I think, imagining the pleasure of assembling a pot of chicken soup and tending it carefully as it cooks, to bring to her house.
Ah, but no. She does not want chicken soup. She wants “mac’n cheese.” The very thought tightens my spine.
How am I supposed to produce a palatable version of this cheesy dish? My partner, Martha, laughs. “It’s easy,” she tells me. “Nobody makes it from scratch anymore.” She says we’ll buy a box at the store, cook the noodles, throw in the powdered cheese-sauce mix, stir, and there it is!
I’m appalled. “Are you serious?” I ask, feeling the tears begin to sting my eyes as I lower myself to hunch over on the couch.
Martha leans down to me, astonished. “What’s going on?”
I am not one who cries easily, so in great distress I observe the tears coursing down my cheeks. Hands over my face, I struggle to suppress my sobs. When I can speak, I try to explain them.
“You don’t understand. It’s my mom … she … used to … serve … casseroles.”
When I was growing up, our family ate quantities of noodles, potatoes, and rice. We loved the hot, juicy, starchy mounds of food that arrived on our plates. My favorite dish was macaroni and cheese.
“Mom put chunks of tomatoes in with the macaroni, and two kinds of cheese. She put a crust of breadcrumbs, parmesan, and margarine on top, and then she baked it,” I say.
This mental picture pushes me into a storm of tears.
Martha, daughter of a lawyer, has a strong need to understand the cause of whatever is happening. Before she can comfort me, she tells me she wants to know why this makes me cry.
Some words escape me — words I have probably never spoken — and make me cry harder.
“I miss my mom.”
I see her in the kitchen, wearing her blue housedress, wavy red hair shingled up the back, eyes a clear crystal blue. Clara, who taught me to stand up straight, to keep my mouth shut, to work and not expect appreciation. I breathe a deep, surprised tenderness for this woman. Her New England flintiness prevented her from expressing her love for her children with touch, warmth, and kisses, but she could comfort us with the casseroles she took from the oven, birthday cake baked just to each of our specifications, and pie made with rhubarb grown in our Midwestern back yard.
Hearing my voice wandering on describing dishes she made, I stop myself. And drop abruptly into a pit of grief at her absence. In this moment, in this frightening, unpredictable world, who do I call upon to protect me?
I hear from somewhere inside, the language of the Metta Sutta: Even as a mother protects with her life / Her child, her only child—those words first uttered so many centuries ago to express the unconditional openhearted loving of the bodhisattva. And because our chaotic terrifying cultural environment these days always penetrates and must be held here, I open into the searing memory of George Floyd’s voice calling for his mother as the breath was squeezed out of him. That first bond and desire. Mama. Mommy.
The sutta goes on: So with a boundless heart / Should one cherish all living beings / radiating kindness over the entire world.
In these deadly days, we are calling out for that primal protection. Where can we find it but in each other? Offering it, if we can, from our boundless hearts — radiating kindness over our terribly threatened and beleaguered world.
Later that day, wearing our masks, Martha and I bring a casserole dish to our friend. She’s recovered enough to join us in the garden — six feet apart — to share the mac’n cheese. She is happily smiling.
“It’s mommy-food,” she says.
Yes. Thank you. And, in that recognition, May we cherish all living beings, radiating kindness over the entire world.