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If only I could eat these all over again…

So, I ate a million chestnuts. And I have a few more deep thoughts to share about chestnuts and mindfulness. Especially after we feasted on them at my in-laws’ house for two days in a row and didn’t even make a dent in the supply.

My last installment detailed the treacherous task of collecting chestnuts once they have fallen to the ground in a frightening, flesh-piercing mass. In harvesting these intimidating little tyrant nuts, one must exercise extreme caution and laser beam focus, particularly when one is too lazy to walk back across the yard and grab a pair of gloves to protect one’s digits from certain destruction. That’s me.

But threats of violence are not all chestnuts have to offer, as I happily rediscovered when it came time to eat them. On day 21, I was keeping up in my determination to faithfully participate in the 31-day mindfulness challenge every single day, and here was yet another opportunity to reflect upon what I had learned so far.

Have you ever eaten roasted chestnuts? Have you? They are nothing like peanuts or even walnuts. I’m talking about real chestnuts. If you answered “no,” you need to get yourself some roasted chestnuts STAT.

My first experience was at Christmas in the French city of Nantes in 2001 with Andrea. We were both “assistantes d’anglais” in France that year and spent the holidays together adventuring around as best we could on our modest salaries. We kept seeing these curious mobile stove carts made to look like steam engines with signs for “marrons grillés” and people coming away from them with steaming paper cones brimming over with something quite intriguing.

We approached, we enquired, we invested a few Francs in the experiment (this was just before the switch to the Euro.) Oh. my. god. Incredible. Splitting one small cone was not going to do it for us. When one happens upon something like this, it is a well known fact that one must eat as much of it as possible on the spot – who knows if another opportunity will ever arise? We greedily procured another, and then possibly another? It was a long time ago. Who can remember such details?

nuts in skillet

Chestnuts literally roasting on an open fire…contained in a gas grill.

What I do remember is the phenomenal, warm, ever so slightly sweet, starchy quality of the chestnut meat, which, incidentally, resembles a small, partially charred brain. But you have to work hard to get to that delicious charred brain! The roasting process requires puncturing the tough skin before putting the chestnuts over the fire in a special pan, and the skin usually become brittle and cracked as it roasts. But the mouthwatering prize must still be extracted from this outer layer and one other, more unpredictable layer that may fall away with little fuss, or more likely, will cling to the meat like old paint on a piece of intricate furniture, flaking off frustratingly small bit by bit.

tiny brain

Behold! the delicious fruits of my labor! In the background, behold the chestnut offal. 

Chestnut eating is a delicate art. Or at least, that is how I imagine it ought to be. I, however, ate them like a savage beast at first, crushing them and ripping at the skins with my bare hands and fingernails. My voracious objective to get as many of them in my mouth as quickly as possible ran in direct opposition to the amount of time required to strip the elusive nuts of their multiple protective sheaths. My fingers began to show wear and feel raw. Why not use the knife lying untouched beside my plate to my advantage? Indeed. A tool was exactly what I needed. Once I was domesticated in this way, the process became less painful and a bit more efficient, and far more civilized. I began to ponder how this, too, fit nicely into the scheme of the mindfulness talks I’d been enjoying for the past three weeks.

Just as I had noticed that collecting chestnuts, “dangernuts” as I call them, demands undivided attention, so does consuming them. It requires appropriate tools, proper technique, much patience, equal determination, as well as concentrated purposeful focus on this one present moment activity. Of course I was at the dinner table with several family members, whom I all but ignored, aside from occasional attempts to convince my son to try them (but not too hard, because that would have meant sharing,) or to chase him back to his seat. For the most part, however, I was fully immersed in this endeavor.

Because of the amount of labor involved, I had no choice but to eat slowly. I savored each bite and appreciated it’s perfect flavor as I diligently worked toward the next mouthful. I could tell when I was getting full, but continued to stuff my face in full consciousness of this fact. I assume that acting reasonably when confronted with such knowledge is a higher lever of awareness and self-control that I simply have not yet attained. On the other hand, perhaps I did act reasonably, since I am pretty sure I won’t have access to this kind of treat again for quite a while! I thought about the seasons and I how lucky it was that we were visiting at this time of year. Sometimes we catch apricot season or cherry season, which is amazing as well. This was our first chestnut season.

My husband, my son and I have returned stateside now. I’m sorry to report that the jet lag and sheer travel exhaustion totally overwhelmed my determination to stick with the daily talks of the Mindfulness Summit. It’s not over yet, but I lost steam and have been too tired to try to catch up or even jump back in (yet.) Previously, I would have been upset with myself and felt guilty that I did not follow through. What I learned from the two-thirds of the Summit I did listen to, and thoroughly enjoyed, is that I can simply acknowledge that I am having negative thoughts and notice them before letting them float off on their own and moving on. Yes, it is easier said than done, but I am getting better at it! Just because I have a thought does not make it true and I don’t have to judge myself for thoughts I have in spite of myself. There.

Finally, I may not have listened to every minute of every talk, as I had planned, but what I did listen to has most definitely piqued my interest and I have already incorporated several simple techniques into my daily life. The Mindfulness Summit also made me want to keep reading, watching, listening, practicing, and learning about what mindfulness can do for me – and more importantly what it can help me do for the people and the world around me. I don’t have to become a perfect person to be a better and more purposeful person. I can be me – more authentically me – and that’s a good first step.

What have you learned from mindfulness?