Five years ago I did a cost/benefit analysis on school lunches, meaning I stopped to think about it. At the time I was thinking about two things: I can make a really great lunch for about half the cost of a school lunch, and when the kids don’t have to wait in line they have more time to eat and relax a little bit. The only downside, I figured, was adding work to the morning routine.
What I didn’t expect was that making lunches for my kids would become one of the best parts of my day.
My girls leave for school at different times so I make their lunches at different times. First, there is the routine of it, which is another way of saying the ritual. I’m not a great fan of compulsory rituals or quid pro quo deity rituals, but I believe in its value and the inherent need for ritual among humans. Everyone has a little ritual in their lives.
I don’t make the same lunches every day and I don’t make the same lunch for one daughter that I make for the other. The variety is spontaneous, a half-pure act of improvisation each morning as I assess the contents of the kitchen and what I have already prepared the day before or days before. And I have a mantra, or liturgy maybe, that guides the lunch making. It is simple and serves to ensure I do not pack an incomplete lunch. My daughters tease me endlessly about this. Nevertheless, it is my order of service and I use it every school day. A complete lunch will include:
A sandwich and a side. [i]
A drink and dessert. [ii]
Fruit and fun. [iii]
The making of the lunches always contains this balance between the familiar, almost mindless meditation of motion, and the creativity of combining food in a way that serves multiple outcomes. To me, it is an honor. As I move about the kitchen, deciding and creating the pile of items that will be deposited into the lunch pail, I think about my children (regardless of the material, I will always call it a lunch pail and I owned the lunch pail pictured above when I was eight). I think about them holding each thing and deciding its fate. Will they eat it, or trade it, or save it for the walk home from the bus stop or a homework snack? I imagine, as I put the lunch together, their contentment in finding both the familiar and unexpected in their lunch. I imagine them feeling that they can count on me and that this fact is the least of their worries. I imagine them feeling some pride in the fact that their lunch is homemade and not an expediency. Of course, “imagine” is the correct word here.
Over the years I have asked my kids many times if they would rather buy their lunch. They are quick and emphatic in their answer. No, they would rather I make their lunch. I realize that part of this is due to the fact that bringing a lunch from home gives them more free time during lunch. But what it means to them is not even half of the equation.
If you think about the process of making a sandwich, the steps and the combination of monotony and care, you will understand. It is an act of meditation and reverence, like Zen calligraphy maybe, Zen butter knifing.
You don’t have to care, but if you do, if you pay attention, making a sandwich for a person for whom you would sacrifice your life without hesitation, becomes a holy thing, even if you don’t believe in holy things other than human things.
It may be that I have overstated my case, but regardless of how I wake up each day, whatever mood or whatever residue from dreams or the previous day I carry, the simple and creative act of making lunch for my children rescues me a little because it brings me back to the center of things, not only the center of my life, which they are, but the center of their completely unadorned needs. As romantic as food can sometimes be, the aesthetics are really just a celebration of the fact that we are eating and we need to eat to survive.
Of all the philosophical and metaphysical garments I have tried on in my life, all the ideas that have passed through my mind and out my lips, one has remained constant. When you pay attention and find value the most fundamental acts: preparing food, eating food, washing dishes, doing laundry, grocery shopping, bathing, dressing, driving, listening, there are no great rewards.
And that is quite the point.