“You can never be a first class human being, until you have learnt to have some regard for human frailty.” –Abhijit Naskar
Greetings Dear Ones!
It’s 4:am and I sit bolt upright in bed, wondering if I can substitute coconut milk for regular milk in the French toast so that all the dairy free campers can partake of it? We need to use up all that bread going stale. Can we serve that with the leftover baked potatoes-turned-hash-browns? We have six hotel pans of them leftover. Will that be bad? French toast with a side of hash-browns? Who does that? It’s a Scottish music camp and they’ve been happy to eat sixty pounds of potatoes per meal so far… Then I remember: I’m home. Home in my own bed, surrounded by snoring, farting little clumps of twitching fur. It’s over. AND I LOVE THAT.
Last Wednesday, exactly a week ago, I came home from work at 5 o’clock in the evening and stopped pretending I am a Seamstress and began pretending I was a Head cook. For the next five days, I shopped and peeled, chopped and stirred, tasted, muttered, tutted, and cursed, for an average of 17 hours a day. I stunk of onions. I looked wretched (especially in the God-awful hats we had to wear) with smears of food on every article of clothing I wore. Lifting such enormous industrial pans and cauldrons strained every aching muscle in my body… AND I LOVE THAT.
I am by no means what-so-ever a trained chef but I found myself responsible for feeding 125 people three times a day for 5 days. During that time, I thought a lot about food, humans, and the amazing similarities between being a cook and a seamstress. I got an intense look at how far I was able to push myself emotionally and physically. I realized over and over how much I LOVE serving people and yet how challenging it is to be a human myself. Over and over, I lost everything from my dignity or patience to items such as a number ten can of beans or an entire case of peaches. I came to appreciate the mind-body connection in a whole new way and marveled as I watched my body literally dart around in circles when my mind was disengaged. So many trains of thought left the station without me… AND I LOVE THAT.
So, how did I get this gig? Years ago, this camp began as an annual gathering in my former home. A Boston-based fiddle teacher wanted a place to have a weekend retreat for her advanced students. Initially, there were less than about 25 people. When you grow up in a large family with a father who loves to cook enormous amounts of food, it turns out that cooking for 25 is really not that big a deal. It was like Thanksgiving every day. I made all the teenagers help. Some of them had no idea how to peel an apple. They learned. We cooked together, building both meals and strong communal bonds. I listened to their stories and their dreams and their music. Everyone wanted to hang in the kitchen, jamming by the fire, while their friends cooked. Over the years, they left to do and be exciting things but always returned to this event and the numbers swelled to 40. It might sound crazy to have 40 people in one house but they were all so dear and familiar—they really were FAMILY by then. My son slept in a cupboard under the stairs, his sister at a friend’s house; all the people from Vermont slept in the barn; my former husband slept in one of the larger closets. Sometimes I slept in my car, with all the dogs so they wouldn’t bother people. The floors were strewn with sleeping bags in every room and one could hardly take a step without having to avoid a body. The music and the fun were sublime. Every now and then, one of the goats would get loose and wander through the house. It was chaos. AND I LOVE THAT.
Sadly, my husband and I parted ways and left the dear old tavern that was so crammed with music and memories. We had to find a new venue for the retreat, which by now had many people of every age and ability level clamoring to participate. My friend asked if I could keep up the cooking tradition, if she found a new place. I agreed wholeheartedly. That year, it became an official “Camp” with administrators and coordinators and things like a “decorating committee” (formerly, my “decorating” had consisted of a quick dusting and making sure there were no dog turds on the carpet!) but we all agreed that the kitchen magic of coming together to prepare wholesome food for ourselves TOGETHER was a key ingredient in community building and would remain. “How many people are coming?” I asked. “Eighty,” she said. “Ok…” I said, “so we just make twice as much!” Easy. Now, more people could come. No one would be excluded for lack of space on the floor. They would have actual beds. The community would grow. The kitchen was bigger and could accommodate more helpers. AND I LOVE THAT.
In two short years, the camp overflowed that venue and we found a new one, with an amazing, fully-equiped industrial kitchen full of enormous things I had no idea how to use. There is an immersion blender there for scrambling eggs that looks like it could power a small motorboat. There is a walk-in fridge, a walk-in freezer, all kinds of racks and trays and warmers and steamers and convection ovens and a cauldron big enough to hold a live goat, though sadly, they are no longer welcome! It’s heaven for cooking for a large crowd. I volunteered and cooked there for a day with the head chef just to learn how to turn everything on and off. He taught me how to scramble ten quarts of eggs at a time and cook them on a griddle the size of a Volkswagon. AND I LOVE THAT.
This year, 125 people came. I have never cooked for so many people. I had some challenges I did not expect. I am not a chef. I never went to cooking school. I learn by saying dangerous things like, “Hey, what’s the worst that could happen?” and “Why the hell not?” But if you put an apron on and pretend you are in charge, people will treat you as if you know what you are doing and expect you to do great things for them. People will ask you over (and over and over) how they should cut the (melon/pineapple/onions/potatoes) for you until you want to scream at them “How do I know?? For F* sakes? Make them like Lucky Charms in hearts, stars, clovers, and magical surprises for all I care! Just take that thing and make it into pieces that might fit on the end of a fork so that some poor soul can get it past their lips!” But of course you don’t do that because you are a “A Nice Person” Or at least pretending to be. And anyway, you cannot treat well-meaning volunteers that way. AND I LOVE THAT.
One morning, the real resident Head Chef, who was living quietly on the campus and observing things from a safe distance, came to help me make breakfast. In minutes, he had assembled a delicious breakfast casserole. It was amazing to watch how deftly he chopped things, how unhurried yet efficient every move with the knife was. “Where did you learn to do this?” I asked. “Oh,” he replied airily, “I have no formal training. I just learned by doing and got the chance to work with some great people who helped me with the finer points.” Hmmm…I thought. Exactly how I became a seamstress. Exactly how a lot of us learn the REAL work we do on a daily basis. We talked about the need to tailor the meals to people’s dietary limitations the way one has to tailor the waistband on a pair of pants. Both jobs involve a lot of cutting, accommodating, understanding what the requirements are, and a good deal of plain old-fashioned Making It Up As You Go Along. He laughed at some of the struggles I was having. His warm, understanding laughter made me feel better instantly. I was Daunted in a way I had never been daunted before but I was going to be Ok. It was comforting to know that Real Professionals have these troubles too and that the only things that could seriously hurt me were physical burns, mishandling heavy things, and Unreasonable Expectations of myself or others. AND I LOVE THAT.
I learned again that people interested in Character Building Experiences can accelerate their personal growth opportunities tremendously by trying to accomplish simple, menial tasks in a timely manner with people who have no idea what they are doing. I learned the value of teamwork and collaboration and that those who just “See what needs to be done and do it” are INVALUABLE everywhere they go. An earnest young man, wishing to be helpful, came up to me and said “It says my job is to wipe down the tables. How do I do that?” I paused and looked at him carefully. He was not kidding. I sensed the Goodness and the Innocence of him and the kindness in his eyes. My heart melted. I gave him a rag and a bottle of cleaner and showed him how to wipe a table. And my heart sang with joy at the thought of what we are all able to give each other from this shared experience. We did NOT hire anonymous professionals to serve us. We learn to serve each other. AND I LOVE THAT.
I love that the Originals who come back every year are now so capable and competent. They are amazing human beings who have stepped in to fill the significant gaps in my own competence with their own. Every year I try to do better and every year I hit a point where I just fall apart. So I decided to add the words “and I love that” to every time I must surrender my ego to the process of building something I cannot do alone. I learned that we find out Who We Are by rushing the limits of what we think we can do and we find out where that line is by going past it. Then we find out who our true friends are when they come to gather up the pieces left by the crash and help us put ourselves and the Plan back together. Our weakness, our incompetence, our weariness is the gift we give others who are Strong—who by coming to our aid, belong to our hearts in a way they never could have otherwise. We finish Together—Tired yet Triumphant, totally nourished in Body and Soul. I wasn’t the Super-Hero I wanted to be. I needed help. I got it! AND I LOVE THAT.
Be well my darlings! And do good work!