THAT EEEEEEEEEEEEE FOR EFFORT
Even I forgot when I volunteered to make dinner for four how much time, forethought and sheer energy the turkey and trimmings, even kept to a healthy Zen-like minimum, could gobble up. When I realized it was eating the better part of two days, from the planning and shopping through the final emptying of the dishwasher-- and what more entertaining undertakings like going to a movie or taking a long walk on the beach I could have indulged in-- resentment rushed in. Yes too, I could have meditated and had a result guaranteed to last way longer than dinner, the essence of impermanence.
I had to remember I put myself through the bruising paces to gather together the young adults of my family now in my area. While we dined we chewed the skinny on Thanksgivings past, at least as I remembered them-- from the genuine Victorian groaning board serviced by hot and cold running cooks at my great uncle’s mansion to the turkey for 22 I made at that particular celebration at which the sink stopped up and my cousin, insisting he could fix it, flooded the kitchen just as we got to the carve and serve. What could I say about the years the female adults in the family did not want to bother so we went to hotels or private eating clubs for the 4 o’clock sitting? Bearing no aromatics, no pathetic recipes or hilarious mishaps, no muss or fuss, they came up empty.
As it happens, not bothering was my grandmother’s specialty and she was so sensational at it she gave that old Buddhist concept 'not doing' a whole new spin. For example, she’d only play bridge if she could be the dummy because she didn’t want to think about which cards to play. After my grandfather died she made one of us routinely write and sign her checks because she didn’t “feel like it.”
My grandmother was born to bucks, she married money and she died on the cusp of 98 still certain that cash could buy you everything including poor people to do all the work. She never raised a finger to do anything—except scold which she did plenty. She seemed permanently disgusted by my having jobs that required smatterings of physical labor, always reminding me that “I wasn’t born to work like that” or “I wasn’t raised to cater to other people” or “For God sakes, you’re not supposed to work like somebody who doesn’t have any money!”
With it all, my grandmother’s biggest lament was: “I don’t have anything to do,” She was an entertainment addict who whined if she had nobody to go with to the movies or no friends to come over for a game of Canasta. She stormed about her houses, cursed the help and stayed up all night trying to take comfort in talk radio. In her last years when reality overwhelmed the TV sitcoms and Hollywood films she begged me with bribes to help her die.
In contrast her older sister whose days had been filled with tragedies and downhills went humming along up to her end. Aunt Florie cranked pink applesauce out of her old food mill for Christmas, at Easter she dyed eggs and nestled them among that green straw and chocolate bunnies in the most artistically fabulous baskets. She made elegant hats as presents and sewed any hem or rip that came her way. You never had to doubt she loved you: she came, she did, she fixed. We loved her fiercely and I miss her still.
Actually the indelible memories of her fussing-- those grapefruits cut each Easter into beribboned baskets for each person’s place at the table, coaxed me to knock myself out over 19 knockout Thanksgiving dinners, 10 July fourth lobster feeds and dozens of catering jobs. Now those turkey diners call me every year on the day to warmly remember. Twice I’ve happened upon a seeming stranger in the supermarket who’d gush with a sunny smile: “You catered my wedding years ago and everybody still talks about it so happily! Nobody forgets our wedding. I can’t thank you enough.”
Effort seems to be that gift that keeps on giving. In our culture of instant, easy, convenient, it may seem quaint but it’s got legs and it stands out. It’s got that old what goes round comes back at you magic because we forge our bonds by what we do for and with each other. As I have taken to telling the young folks in the mating marathon, all you have to offer each other is your time, your energy, your focus and these are so limited that to bother sharing or giving them is to send a huge message to someone. Trust me, they get it.
Look hard at people and you will see the sum of their efforts. I’m not talking so much about the afgo, (another fucking growth opportunity) as about why fondest family memories are often of the harder times, the trials or goof ups like the time my aunt and I tried to make a No Fail chocolate cake for a charity pot luck and the stupid batter failed by dripping out all over the oven because the pan we’d bought at the charity flea market for this do-good attempt had a tiny hole in it. What do we recall after a journey or vacation but what went wrong, unforeseen “adventure”? Remember how the monkey got into the tent and upended the duffle bag to steal the goodies or how the flight was cancelled and we ended up spending eight hours in that makeshift airport? The moments we had to rise to the occasion are the occasions that rise in memory because we savor the fact we had to do something and did.
I was lazy in school and have missed enough opportunities since to regret myself. So I am dazzled by the recollection that despite a defective neck and resultant troubled spine, I managed to pull off the 100,000 full prostrations Tibetan Buddhism requires. Lazy me who hates to get out of bed in the morning actually did 100,000 full prostrations and went on to do 100,000 100 syllable mantras and so on because the dharma is a merciless do it yourself deal. There are no crib notes, no hired help, no God to intercede, no electronic labor saving devices to boost you toward enlightenment. There isn’t even a way to cheat! There is absolutely no way around the invincible fact that the escape from suffering has no escape hatch. It is, as Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche says, up to you.
The Buddha was so serious about the value of effort that exertion is one of the six steps to transcendence, right up there with generosity and meditation. You could say it’s that No pain no gain thing, the eeeeeeeeeech becoming wheeeeeeeeeeeeeeee. I say with every voluntary baste, braise and bruise: Bless this stress.
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