Effortless Effort

Effortless Effort

Dana Velden
Jun 10, 2012

This morning I was watching a video of a woman throwing a clay pot on a potter's wheel. I was so impressed with how effortless she made it seem. How did she know when to squish the clay down and then slowly draw it back up again? How did she know when more water was needed, or how much pressure to apply with one hand but perhaps not the other? How did she know when she was done?

I imagined the first time she ever threw a pot. I'm sure it was a disaster, or at least, a much less graceful event. What made her continue, what helped her to come back to the wheel, over and over and over again until she got it right? Until throwing a pot on a wheel became as much a part of her natural movements as reaching up to brush a strand of hair out of her eyes. Maybe she saw something in that first pot, a tiny glimmer of success and beauty that encouraged her. Maybe she knew she had it in her. Maybe she was mature and disciplined and understood that she wouldn't always be all thumbs, that one day she would handle clay like a dancer handles gravity. Maybe she just loved the clay and didn't want to stop digging her hands in it.

It reminded me of when I am cooking, and that feeling of effortless effort, when I'm probably applying knowledge and energy and intention, but still, it doesn't feel like I'm trying. I'm just doing, just cooking. It's that feeling of knowing the next thing that needs to be happen (more salt, higher heat, a splash of vinegar) in the half second just before it needs to happen. It's not written anywhere, it just arrives and my body is moving before the thought completes forming. Sometimes even before.

This ability comes to me, like perhaps it does for the potter, after years and years of cooking. In my case, almost 30 years, maybe even more. Sure, I've read uncountable cookbooks and cooking articles, tasted dozens of inspiring meals. I've attended classes, taught classes even. I've watched cooking shows and videos, and have had long discussions with fellow cooking geeks about ingredients, techniques, innovation. All this has bought me invaluable knowledge and understanding. But nothing, nothing has taught me about cooking better than actually cooking. Nothing can replace the physicality of actually cooking, of doing cooking, of being cooking.

We can read a cake recipe and talk about making a cake and watch a video of someone making a cake, but none of those actions will actually produce a cake. It's only when we take down a bowl and pick up a spoon and start measuring flour that the cake begins to exist. Just as life teaches us how to live at that moment when we are actually, completely, totally engaged in living. In the end, it's all in the doing.

So please, just go ahead and do it. Over and over and over again.