The other morning I had a huge pile of pistachios to shell and just the thought of it was kicking my ass. Although it was only 7:30am, I was already hyped up and very behind schedule on a busy, multi-deadline driven day. There was so much to get done, so many half-started tasks that needed my immediate attention. I was juggling cookie tins and sharp knives and camera lenses. The stove was huffing and steaming with sautéing onions and simmering lentils. The pile of unshelled nuts and the impossibility of shelling them was the last straw. Danger sign: The sun is barely up and you’ve already reached your last straw.
With my ears flooded with music (Elvis Costello and The Attractions, My Aim is True, 1979) and three cups of very black, very strong tea coursing through my nervous system, I was suddenly overwhelmed by the impossibility of this. My mind began its usual litany of well-rehearsed scolds and short-comings. Why had I bought unshelled pistachios? What was I thinking? Well, clearly I wasn’t thinking (as usual, dammit). And why didn’t I shell them the night before instead of watching three episodes of last season’s Last Tango in Halifax? Heck, I could have shelled them while watching Last Tango in Halifax — multitasking at its best! I let the tape run on for a minute or two before I finally came to my senses.
Sour-bellied and defeated, I eventually realized that there was only one thing I could do: surrender. There is simply no workaround for unshelled nuts that needed shelling so I took a deep breath, threw on the brakes and brought the whole hyped up swirl of my morning to a halt. I turned off the onions, brought the lentils to a very low burble and shoved the cookie sheets aside. I switched the music from Elvis C to Nina Simone (The Essential Nina Simone, 1993), pulled up a chair and picked up a pistachio. The only way out was through.
You know where this is heading, right? I hope you can image it: Nina Simone’s beautiful voice, the soothing click-click-click rhythm of shelling nuts, the morning sun finally making it through the kitchen window and softening my crunched and painful shoulders. For a few moments, my life became astonishing simple. Just pick up a pistachio, one at a time, and click-click-click. In those moments, there was nothing else to do, no other task more important, than a large pile of pistachio nuts in need of shelling.
Why do I always forget how much simple, repetitive kitchen tasks can calm and sooth, how surrendering to a singular goal is not madness but a source of pleasure? Narrowing my focus to just one thing is not a scary and impossible fairytale but a relief and pleasure and really the only solution most of the time. The habit of being overwhelmed and multitasking is a hard one to break but I guess there’s there’s nothing like a 7:30 am kitchen meltdown to realign priorities and set things straight.
As you encounter the hustle and hype of this busy holiday season, I hope you will remember that our lives are not a series of tasks to juggle and obsess over but the unspooling of simple, singular moments, precious and limited. I hope you will remember that surrendering to them is sometimes our greatest strength and that a simple task done in good company (Nina Simone and sunbeams, for example) is the source of a great and peaceful happiness. Each moment, no matter what it is offering, is a gift beyond price. Don’t miss it.