He doesn't just do it for the thrill of the challenge, though I do think that is part of it. He does it so that on his Christmas Eve birthday he can enjoy a true black walnut cake.
We have come to expect that part of our holiday tradition includes watching him pick the meat out of the shells during one of our holiday gatherings. This year's perennial pick occurred during a family weekend in the mountains. There are 11 of us most of the time when we all gather. That includes four children who are ages seven and under. As you can imagine, our time together can get quite boisterous.
On Saturday morning of our family weekend, all of the grandchildren had gathered with Grandmommy in her room for a reading of The Polar Express. After the kids had taken turns with Grandmommy to read the book, their gathering morphed into a Christmas karaoke party. The four kids bounced, danced, and hung off the four post bed while each took their turn at the microphone stationed on a hutch at the foot of the bed. Grandmommy sat smiling, applauding, and laughing. She was in hog heaven.
Granddaddy was in his own heaven: a zen place filled with walnut shells and metal nut pickers. Opposite the cabin from the karaoke party, he stood at the kitchen counter with singular focus and one objective: release as much meat as possible from the interwoven tunnels of the walnut shells.
Watching him I realized that it wasn't that he wasn't enjoying the raucous party in the other room. On the contrary, he was smiling and blissful. Through his focused exercise in extraction, he had created a filter that allowed the party to be enjoyable rather than overwhelming.
I wish I could remember who it was to give her credit, but someone in my women clergy colleague group last week recalled the meditation that came with shelling peas in the summer time. This isn't something most of us do any more. I remember sitting with my great-aunt on her porch on warm August days as she filled her apron with peas.
Much of the work we do these days doesn't take this shape. The "task-at-hand" has grown more metaphorical and less literal. We look at computer screens and measure our productivity through communications.
Watching my father shell walnuts and hearing my colleague's reflection made me aware that part of my love for being in the kitchen is that it pushes me into a meditative space.
Something you should know about me is that I don't sit still well. I grew up in an active family with full schedules and a desire to devour all of life's offerings. It's hard, nigh impossible for me simply to sit. I never have been a good student of the classic idea of meditation with eyes closed, still body, noiseless room. Call it "personality flaw", "lack of discipline", "personal reality", or what you will. I know myself and sitting still is not a part of my constitution.
But that doesn't mean meditation isn't. It is part of what draws me to the kitchen. Like my father with his walnuts, the kitchen filters out much of the clanging anxiety that seems to be so much in the air these days. It is not necessarily a quiet place. Often I have the radio on either tuned to classical music or even the news. Then there is the whir and hum of the appliances mixed with the staccato clicking of dishes. To me these are the sounds of meditation.
As my hands work a ball of dough or reach for a whisk, my mind is allowed to wander in and out of the recipes into other territories. The rhythm of the knife on the chopping board releases my thoughts to consider in one moment the people on our prayer list and in another my children and how much they are growing. The sound of the onions hitting the oiled pan may ring in thoughts for an upcoming sermon or thanksgivings for my husband and the strength of his love and vocation.
Just as my father works on his walnuts, so too do I work in my kitchen, not so much to disconnect but to shore up connections. As my hands work, my mind is free to turn to people and things who don't always receive my attention over the immediacy of other environs.
After being shelled, the walnuts will be picked through several more times to pull out the small bits of shell that threaten the integrity of the cake and dental fillings alike. The fruit of that labor will be a birthday cake worthy of the celebration, rich with a flavor that couldn't not have happened any other way.