"Yin and Yang are my Chef"
Assuaging pre-election jitters with a sharp knife and some exuberant poetry
Yin and Yang are his chef
The Creator of Transformations are his butcher
Li Bai, Rhapsody on the Hall of Light
The two lines quoted above are an excerpt from a very long poem that I stumbled upon while researching the Nine Tripods of Yu for my next newsletter post in my new series The Annals of Neolithic Globalization. As Nicholas Williams notes in his study of the poem, the lines are undoubtedly references to Zhuangzi’s parable of Cook Ding, the butcher who was so skillful he never needed to sharpen his cleaver.
To discover my favorite poet discoursing upon the foundational metaphor for this entire newsletter journey was a welcome distraction from pre-midterm jitters. I have found it occasionally difficult to sleep at night the past few weeks, as my subconscious refuses to let go of the potentially disastrous consequences of this election. As is my way, I strive to navigate anxiety by focusing on my cooking and my writing. And when Cook Ding pops up unexpectedly, I pay attention.
Because this was the second manifestation of Cook Ding in just the last two weeks. A few days ago, I was deboning some chicken thighs with a boning knife given to me for my 6oth birthday, a welcome replacement for a knife I had lost on my 59th birthday. The knife was a beauty from Hida Tool & Hardware in Berkeley, a store that has inspired a cherished tradition. Once a year, I take all my favorites knives there to get them sharpened. I have lately been practicing my own knife sharpening skills, but I find something very satisfying about the care that the knife-makers at Hida take, the origami-like wrapping in brown paper in which they encase my beat-up cleaver, the sense of building connection with people who take knives seriously.
Of course, if I was a true adept like Cook Ding, or even Li Bai, who was said to pride himself on his swordsmanship in addition to his poetry and his drinking capacity, I’d never have to take my knives anywhere to get sharpened. But I’m not quite there yet.
Although, just maybe, I can see a path forward. The first time I deployed my new boning knife, I realized that it was probably the sharpest knife I had ever had the pleasure to slice with. This encouraged, if merely for self-preservation, acute attention to handling with care. But as I prepped my thighs last week, I had something of an out of body experience. I watched myself taking pains to ensure that the knife never made even the most glancing of collisions with bone or sinew. But “taking pains” is actually the wrong formulation. While part of me was definitely consciously thinking that I didn’t want to take any action that would unnecessarily dull the blade, the hands that were doing the actual work felt unthinkingly in tune with the knife. I followed its lead, went where it wanted to go.
Cook Ding was famously able to find the “thin spaces” between the joints, where the least resistance meets the sharpness of the blade. The secret, he told the duke watching in awe, was years and years of practice that merged experience with intuition. You can’t teach this knack, he noted. You just have to do it. Reps count.
Playing with my new knife, paying as close attention to what I was doing as I was capable of while also paying no particular attention whatsoever, I fell into a rejuvenatingly therapeutic rhythm. My anxieties sloughed away.
As translated by Thomas Merton:
True, there are sometimes
Tough joints. I feel them coming,
I slow down, I watch closely,
Hold back, barely move the blade,
And whump! the part falls away
Landing like a clod of earth.
Then I withdraw the blade,
I stand still
And let the joy of the work
I clean the blade
And put it away.
I don’t know what the future will bring tomorrow. The world feels poised at the edge of an unfathomable precipice. But I am heartened at yet another chance encounter with Li Bai and Cook Ding. Li lived through his own epochal disaster; his life encompassing not only the height of China’s most glorious dynasty, the Tang, but also the abrupt end of a golden age sundered by corruption and greed and rebellion.
And yet the memory of his exuberance and joy lives forever.
So when in doubt, pick up a sharp knife, start slicing, and invite some people over to dinner. That’s what I’m going to do, win or lose tomorrow.
Whatever the result tomorrow, love and skill remain.