Two years ago, my mother the artist decided that it was important to reconnect with her Swedish and Norwegian heritage. At Christmas. The result is that we’re about to celebrate Julbord, the Christmas Table feast of my Scandinavian ancestors. And in part this means gravlax. Gravlax is brined salmon. It’s very important, when the call is taken up, “Do you want to cut the gravlax?” to drop everything you’re doing and go to the assistance of whichever family member thinks this task isn’t worth their time.
Because the person who does the job has to fend off all the poking, prodding, chopstick-ing fingers that try to eat all the gravlax before the Julbord even begins. We have 22 people coming for open house today; if everyone gets into the act of stealing a taste here and there, what then? There will be no gravlax to serve to anyone, and no one will come next year. They will think, “there was no gravlax last year, and why should I go this year if there’s no salmon?”
Perhaps this is the point of being the salmon-slicer. The trick is to get slices that a translucent and large enough to go on crisp bread, but also thin enough that no one feels cheated. You have to defend the gravlax against a host of relatives, none of whom you are allowed to wound, and possibly also a determined cat interested in the fish oil and fish flesh. This takes a steady hand and a careful eye and the ability to look outraged at yet another fish theft at a moment’s notice. It is not easy.
But of course … there are always leavings and droppings, and if you are the knife-handler, there’s nothing wrong with you taking a taste of the gravlax that have fallen off the cutting board after it’s all cut up into pieces and ready to serve. The stuff on the platter is for guests, but this stuff? It landed on the counter. It’s fair game. It’s the portion that comes to the person who cuts up the salmon into the papery thin pieces that the guests will eat.
Clearly I need more practice at the thin-slicing part, but I’m already better than anyone else in my immediate family. I got to do it at least twice in the last year, first last Christmas, and then again when we had another party which required gravlax. I’m getting good. I’d like to be better.
So it is with tai chi. The more times I flow through the practice maneuvers, the better I will be. But I must give it a good faith effort. I can’t eat all the gravlax for myself; I can’t hold all the chi for myself. It has to flow. The energy must work. I can hold some in reserve for myself. But really, it must flow. The energy must move in order for it to do any good. The gravlax can be held in reserve for the party, but some of it must be let go — to family, to friends, even to the cat — before it can be released in a broad stream of gratitude for the season.
If this seems like a strange metaphor, that’s to be expected. Gravlax and chi? But a party does not happen without a building-up of resources and a letting-go of resources. It does not begin without a commitment to make the preparations for the party, the establishment of a menu, the assembly of the ingredients, the love and the devotion that go into their preparation, the establishment of boundaries in food pantry and refrigerator between what is for lunch and what is for the party, the invitation of guests, the tracking of which guests have said yes and no, and finally the open door. The invitation goes out, it is received, and the guests show up to participate in the energy you have assembled. Meanwhile, the party pours your wealth and time and treasure and effort into other hands — the deli man who sliced the ham, the farmer who grew the potatoes, the fisher who caught the salmon, the mushroomer who collected the morels.
Chi is the same way. We stand in the position of invitation, and breathe for a moment, and then invite ourselves and our chi into the dance. The universe rewards us. Power responds to power, the forces of nature and gravity and cellular biology respond, and we gather up life force and project it, hither and yon, reserving some to ourselves, wasting other parts of it, tumbling other parts of it into other hands. Our preparations go a long way into determining whether the evening is a mythic bust or a mythic moment in the histories of the guests.
We are the guests of our own party, too. We have been invited to the universal banquet, asked to participate in the ebb and flow of energy in this life. Suppose a god — suppose that God — chose to invite himself to this self-same banquet? Wouldn’t God come to the banquet the same way we did, through the front door of a life with all its mystery, its indignities and glories intact? Would God not wake in growing wonder to the awesomeness of the banquet?