When my daughter was in high-school she worked at Bagel Central, an iconic establishment in downtown Bangor. Laid back and sunny with floor to ceiling windows and wire baskets of bagels; racks of Danish, rugelach, muffins and cookies; and glass cases of endless desserts, spinach pie, smoked salmon, various sides and vats of cream cheese, it was the place I always chose to meet someone for coffee or lunch. Not long after Ellen started work, Gary, my partner, and I stopped in for lunch to see Ellen in action. We ordered a couple of Reubens which she offered to hand deliver when ready.
Ten minutes went by. At 15 it seemed reasonable to wander over to see what was going on. Ellen, busily crafting our sandwiches at the back counter, glanced up kind of sheepishly and said they were coming right up. Five more minutes went by and then, at long last, we see her heading over with a big grin on her face, a plate in each hand. It was a beautiful sight to behold: hefty sandwiches sliced in half displaying a big stack of corned beef and a thick layer of sauerkraut and melted Swiss cheese paired with a cute little scoop of potato salad, a pickle spear and a metal condiment cup holding a dollop of their signature magenta-colored Russian dressing (beets being the secret ingredient, so now you know).
Setting them down on the table she apologized for how long we’d waited but explained herself.
“I make my sandwiches with love.”
So that’s what was going on. My mother heart felt like it was going to bust out of my chest with love for the depth of her care but the practical part of me wondered how this love was going to work out from the business angle. A few weeks later, Ellen got moved off the sandwich line and onto other assignments that didn’t call her so passionately, so that question got answered.
Ellen’s sandwiches unexpectedly showed up in answer to another question 15 years later. It was two weeks before Christmas and I was out on my walk struggling to get my mind to stay with me. I couldn’t keep it contained. It kept leaping out of my skin and ahead to the rest of my ridiculously packed Saturday agenda stuffed with groceries, laundry, present wrapping, cookie making and an ill-timed floor painting project, none of which stopped me from entertaining the idea of adding just one more cookie variety to the mix. Or maybe two.
I wasn’t enjoying my walk and I knew I wouldn’t enjoy any one of the other things on my agenda much of which I had been looking forward to but all of which were now reduced to burdensome tasks standing between me and just getting this day checked off. This was no way to live and I knew it. But knowing it is not the same as knowing how to unhook from an agenda that owned me more than I owned it.
As I flailed around trying to slow down my mind and get in sync, an image got called up from the deep recesses of my mind: Ellen standing at our table in Bagel Central explaining how she’d made our sandwiches with love. This picture came out of nowhere, as if I needed to be told to live my life in a making-a-sandwich-with-love sort of way.
Yes! That was exactly what I needed to do! But as for actually doing that — on a pre-Christmas day jam-packed with a ridiculous list of things to do, no less — how was that supposed to work? Even on a normal day, was it even possible to live this way while still managing to keep your job on the sandwich line?
But I had enough dread about wrecking a good day to push an unexpected decision out of me: I would conduct an experiment that very day, come what may. So deep was my distress I was willing to make some sacrifices — all my cookies even — if that’s what it came to. I vowed to give each activity my full and unhurried attention. At days’ end I would see where I was and live with the knowledge that at least I’d been there.
Not to brag, but here’s what I got done: laundry, two batches of cookies (snickerdoodles and sugar), a coat of paint on the floor, grocery shopping, some wrapping, and to top it all off, a quick draft of this story. All done mindfully, I swear. I was right there, even with my laundry, watching my very own hands pull out the wet clothes plastered to the washer’s inner drum and give them an awkward sideways toss into the dryer. To be fair I knew I would be reporting out on my day, having seen the story potential here as soon as the Ellen-making-sandwiches-with-love image popped into my head. And I won’t lie; the accountability of reporting out made an undeniable difference.
While my Saturday produced an extraordinary test result, in truth I can’t claim I have been able to keep up that level of presence. But I’m trying. As I worked on trying to fasten myself to whatever I’m doing in that “making-a-sandwich-with-love” sort of way, I realized this attempt to merge with my activity pretty much illustrates the meaning of the word yoga. Yoga literally means yoke, to yoke your mind and body together. When you do that, presto, you are in the present moment because the body has no choice but to be in the present.
For some reason this blows me away, the fact that the body has no other option but to be in the present moment. There is no escape for the body. You know you will always find it planted squarely in the here-and-now – standing in line at the grocery store, at the dentist, putting the dishes in the dishwasher. It gets out of nothing. It’s the mind that is able to fly off somewhere else. It’s the free one, getting to take off whenever it wants to. It’s just at the cost of actually living.
Now equipped with this understanding that making sandwiches with love is like yoking yourself to the activity at hand, I tried to harness the full power of this knowledge by employing visualization — a near magical technique in its ability to make whatever you are doing stronger, more effective. A yoke, however, is a problematic visual. I kept picturing a pair of oxen with that thing around their neck binding them together, and probably not very happily so. No happier than we would be to share a two-headed harness with whoever we are in conversation with, an exceedingly disturbing visual.
Over the next several days I worked very hard to find a visual with a better vibe. I came up with all kinds of surreal and totally useless options intended to provide me something to yoke up with other than the tangible objects in my physical reality, in that imagining hooking onto real people or real things is ridiculous and distracting. The best I came up with was a set of imaginary handlebars magically manifesting before my very eyes which only I could see — equally ridiculous and distracting. I wasn’t having much luck.
I was ready to give up when the image of Dr. Veerault, one of the best primary care docs I’ve ever had, came to mind. I remembered how she would pause at the closed exam room door before going in, then touch the door or her heart to bring herself fully into the present moment as a reminder to be all there, ready to listen and care. I know this is what she did because one time my door was open and I saw her do this before going into the room across the hall, so I asked her.
The minute the image of Dr. Vereault touching that door showed up in my mind I knew it was the answer for how to make a sandwich with love when not literally making a sandwich. Deliberately laying your hands on anything in the environment where your body stands will bring you right there, a secular laying on of hands bringing you back to the sacredness of the everyday.
When I do, it works. Deliberately and consciously laying my hands on this keyboard and typing these very words right here, right now, is making a sandwich with love. I just have to put my hands on something. Anything at all.