The dharma of fava beans

My girlfriends and I have been getting together for potluck brunch every month or two for over seven years now, taking turns hosting at each other’s homes. I haven’t hosted at the Zen Center because I don’t have a private living room there, but this month I tried the experiment of hosting brunch in the conference center next door.  The conference center was originally a Victorian home and has been converted into offices and meeting spaces. It includes a living-room-sized sun room with big comfy chairs and couches and a coffee table – perfect for half a dozen women to catch up on the intimate details of their lives.

Sundays are “open kitchen” days at the Zen Center, and residents wander in and out of the kitchen getting coffee or bagels or cooking scrumptious delicacies and bonding over small talk and spontaneous philosophical discussions.   Normally I hole myself away in my room much of the day or jet off to outside activities, but for this occasion I pulled out my slow cooker and made my favorite fava bean recipe.  While the fava beans cooked I processed a liquid salad in the Robot Coupe and fielded a dozen questions in the form “what’s in the crock pot?” followed by the corollaries “what’s a fava bean?” or “is that your crock pot?  It’s a nice one!”  This required much more of my extrovert toolkit than I am used to on a Sunday.

At around 9:30 I walked next door to assess the situation in the sun room and that’s when the mishaps began: the door between the sun room and the rest of the conference center was locked and I couldn’t get in. I reluctantly roused both the work leader and the director on their day off to take care of the situation, but no one had a key.  After various phone calls and visits and trying out many keys on large key rings, the verdict was that this particular door was never locked, or as they put it “had never been locked,” and there was no key.  We had to come up with Plan B.

The director suggested I hold my brunch in the main meeting room.  But the main room had no chairs or tables, and the zabutons and zafus were stacked up in the sun room which I could see through the windowed door but not get into, so I began to carry zabutons and zafus from next door at 300 Page street, pulling them from the Ino’s closet downstairs, up the stairs and out the front door, up the sidewalk to 308 Page Street, and up the front steps into the main room of the conference center.  As I hauled, I imagined the scenario for the next couple of hours:  the six of us sitting on cushions in a large sterile room, every once in awhile getting up to gaze longingly through the window in the door to the sun room at the big comfy chairs, just out of reach.

And then the work leader was there in front of me, saying “Gretchen – come with me.”

I followed him out through the back exit, where a set of stairs leads down to the side courtyard of 300 Page Street.

“I’m going to try something. But I need you to stand here while I do it.”

He stepped down a few steps and pointed up to an open window above, and through it I could see the sun room.  A portal!

He continued, “I don’t know exactly what I expect you to do, but I’m going to try to go in through that window.”

I stood downstream of him, waiting to leap into unspecified action.  I felt poised on the brink of the Now, knowing that the course of Right Action and its manifestation in movement would have to be downloaded in simultaneity, if it came to that.  I couldn’t hang out in daydreams of how it would all turn out. I had to be in a stance of open readiness.

But the work leader pulled off the maneuver, hoisting his long, agile body up onto the staircase railing and pulling himself up through the portal into the room beyond. My part in Right Action was completed simply by standing in awe of his gracefulness.  He walked across the sun room, unlocked the door from inside, and I met him on the other side.

Additional mishaps were miraculously and thankfully avoided. It turned out the main meeting room had been reserved by a meditation group, who arrived around noon to begin setting up, so it was a good thing we hadn’t decided to spread ourselves out there.  My girlfriends and I spent the next few hours behind the closed (but not locked) door of the sun room, eating and talking and shhh-ing each other when our voices and laughter started to get too loud, trying – trying – to be mindful of the quiet contemplative stillness in the next space.

By the end of the day I could proclaim overall success, and I was particularly pleased that the fava beans with their liquid salad topping were well received.

I was reminded of a story from a few years ago, when I worked for a famous scientist as his executive assistant. This scientist had advanced a model for how a certain class of diseases originates, a model that was once considered scientific heresy; when he persevered to find evidence to support the model it eventually became accepted in the mainstream and he became famous.  As a result he attracted attention from nonscientists, people who wanted to meet with him or interview him for an article or wanted him to take on their personal medical cases or validate their own scientific (or pseudo-scientific) endeavors.

There was the woman who sent a ten-page handwritten letter to him describing a dream she had had that she was sure would “crack the code” of finding a cure for the diseases he studied (he has been able to describe their unfolding but not how to cure them).  One might think a scientist known for scientific heresy would be open to alternative avenues of inspiration, but the heretical ideas of others were not something he particularly seemed to gravitate toward.

Another woman came unannounced all the way from New Jersey to ask the scientist to diagnose her with a specific disease she was certain she had (a colleague of mine diplomatically responded to her, “that’s quite interesting, as up until this point we have never found that disease in humans, only sheep.”  The line was exquisitely hilarious, but the woman’s suffering and mental deficiencies were not, so we kept our laughter in check until she had gone).  The woman claimed that because “the government was monitoring her movements” she couldn’t use a telephone or email, and her stories filled the room with sadness while we all scrambled our brains thinking of what to do with her – other than having her meet the scientist, which would not do.  At that moment the scientist was working in the room next door and she could have seen him through a window in the door if she had looked.  My one hope was that if she looked through it she wouldn’t recognize the man who had aged twenty years from the most likely photograph she would have seen of him.  There was high tension in the office waiting for something dramatic to happen, but she did eventually leave without further incident.

I sometimes felt sad about the time these people invested and the earnestness of their communications, which seemed to be dispersed into the darkness like a rocket’s payload sent out into empty space.  Something big in their lives was asking to be transmitted, some suffering or hope or idea or need that was ejected outward to find its resolution.  Was it random and misplaced that they had identified this scientist as the logical repository of their hopes?  Or was there resolution, and I just didn’t know how to identify it?

I tried to respond humanely and at least send back some human warmth as I gave them bad news – he is unavailable that day, he is traveling, he said your project looked worthwhile but he has too much on his plate right now and he wishes you luck. Perhaps I could complete the circuit for them in some small way.  Perhaps some circuit was completed for me as well – the universe is working in strange ways all the time.  My colleagues and I in the middle of this interaction became actors in the unfolding drama, a point of intersection in the net connecting all things.  We weren’t unnecessary or irrelevant to the moment.  Knowing this I took my job seriously, and defined it broadly.

But that’s all backstory. This is the story I told my brunch friends that Sunday:

“Long, long ago when I was an executive assistant for a famous scientist, a writer emailed a request for the scientist to look at her diet book.  The book title contained the word “Biochemical,” which might have implied a relevance to the scientist’s work. She wanted him to endorse the book and the science it was based on, become a collaborator, get involved in a television series she was working on.

“I mentioned this to the scientist; he wasn’t interested in diet books. In my response to the writer I tried to embody the art of being an executive assistant: to make people feel valued and validated while firmly communicating that they will not be getting the meeting they seek.  In this instance I was not successful, and the woman continued to correspond with me, giving me more information, deeper explanations, and eventually sending a copy of the book.

“Even to the untrained minds of the office staff, the science of this diet book seemed tenuous.  But I brought it into our meeting with the scientist and waved it in front of him so that he’d have a chance to grab it if it appealed to him.  It didn’t.

“But I flipped through it myself and found this wonderful recipe for fava beans.”

P.S. While writing this post, Word has been insisting on the following correction:   It’s not fava beans, it’s lava beans.  Not sure if there’s a deeper meaning there or not.

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About gretchen

Gretchen lives in San Francisco. She writes about Zen practice and mundane moments on a planet that is increasingly ... hot.
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