Always an early riser, I often walked in on my father as he was preparing breakfast, the first rays of sunlight pouring through the kitchen windows. Sixty years on, the morning meal remains profoundly personal for me.
A deeply spiritual man and life-long seeker, Daddy had been at the dining room table since 5 a.m. reading scripture, meditating, praying, writing, and planning his day. He then moved into the kitchen for the next phase of his morning’s work.
Monday-through-Friday’s menu seldom varied for our family of seven. Eggs — often scrambled, although he later offered a great sunny-side-up version for those who preferred that option — were first on the plate. Bacon went next; two slices if memory serves, but it seldom is infallible these days. Toast with jam filled out the menu. A glass of milk, and later coffee as we aged out of one drink and into the other, sat on each place mat. Our food came with a helping of WSM morning radio on the side. Some people begin their day with the meditative stylings of Enya or George Winston. Our ambient music was Flatt and Scruggs.
Once the food was ready for the table, my father made sure we were all up and moving. “Rise and shine” was his favorite wake-up call. Some of us took it more literally than others. Mother, a habitual night owl, fell into the latter camp. Because he often rode his bike to work, Daddy was out the door before 6:45 a.m. As we grew older, we helped mother with the clean-up and getting ourselves off to school or summer jobs.
How I prepare and eat breakfast has changed through the years, but it has always been grounded in those memories. The realization came slowly, but over time it occurred to me that my father used breakfast as part of a morning practice, well before that term came to mean what it does today. When he walked into the Tennessee Valley Authority office at 7 a.m., he had already centered his soul, stimulated his mind, cheerfully provided for his family, and exercised. We could all do much worse in beginning our days.
Unconsciously at first, but more recently with deeper intention, I’ve followed in his footsteps.
The Buddhist monk and writer Thich Nhat Hanh first came to my attention in Barbara Brown Taylor’s Holy Envy. My wife, who is reading from Thich Nhat Hanh’s book of daily wisdom entitled Your True Home, recently asked me to listen to his take on a mindful breakfast.
“Even a daily habit like eating breakfast, when done as a practice, can be powerful. It generates the energy of mindfulness and concentration that makes life authentic. When we prepare breakfast, breakfast making can also be a practice. We can be really alive, fully present, and very happy during breakfast making. We can see making breakfast as mundane work or as a privilege — it just depends on our way of looking. The cold water is available. The hot water is available. The soap is available. The kettle is available. The fire is available. The food is available. Everything is there to make our happiness a possibility.”
As she read to me, it began to come together that with a few mindful changes, I could follow in the footsteps of my father’s morning practice. The opportunity to begin with a centering morning practice was always there for me, if I simply chose to follow the example I’d known my entire life.
Having recently put aside my electronic devices, my day now begins with a short reading followed by stretching and yoga poses, to limber both mind and body. Soon after my semi-retirement, I refashioned my morning walk from the metro station to the office into a regular stroll around the neighborhood. A shower to refresh for the day was followed by breakfast. Finally, instead of reading 30 minutes each way during my commutes to-and-from the office, I now sit in a comfortable chair by the window with a cup of coffee and read a book as part of my “non-commute”.
By the time I head upstairs to the “office,” I am well on my way to being centered, limber, and happily fed. The next step was to choose to make breakfast integral to my morning practice.
Breakfast was the one piece of my morning that wasn’t terribly mindful. Oh, I have routines for making breakfast that are generally well-considered and fit my empty-nest stage of life. The smell of coffee, prepared the night before, greets me. One of my favorite mugs, perhaps from Powell’s in Portland or the one “stolen” from the City Cafe in Murfreesboro, is waiting beside the freshly brewed pot.
But until recently, I prepared the meal more by rote (which is possible when you have the same menu), and I would eat each bite without much consideration for what, or how much, was going into my mouth. I acted as if there were more important things to focus on in the newspaper or on my tablet. My habit of devouring food is a sore subject for those near to me. Slowing down to savor the meal is, I’m afraid, a work in progress.
When I’m mindful of the practice of breakfast, I stop to appreciate the smell of the coffee before I begin preparation of the fixings for the eggs. Stepping back to focus on the details of the prep has led me to think of this meal in relation to others I’m having that day. My thoughts sometimes turn to how both of my adult children — who now live away from home — are lovers of a good breakfast and know how to fix one. For that I’m thankful. I know that upstairs Candice is somewhere along the path of her well-considered morning practice. As Thich Nhat Hanh says, everything is there to make my happiness a possibility.
Now, after savoring my food and reading during my non-commute, I head up to the desk where I’ll spend the rest of my morning. As I do so, I think of Tom Brown walking into the old office building by the substation in Murfreesboro and give thanks for the example of the practice of breakfast that was there in front of me, all along.
Have a good week.
More to come…