Saturday, October 21st 2017

The Great Toaster Lesson

How a prayer circle, and a kitchen fire, led to a powerful Aha! Moment


BY SUEANN JACKSON-LAND — Every other Saturday morning my friend Kim picks me up to join the Elgin Street Mission Breakfast Club, a group comprised of  women who serve food at a local soup kitchen. Our captain is Debbie, an energetic woman I like to describe via her shoes: Keds sneakers colored with Sharpies into left and right rainbows.

Kim, I met at church. She is one of those people who keeps her Christian faith private, although her spirit is always at work. That she didn’t try to coerce me into a volunteer effort made me want to do it all the more.

This past Saturday, only my second time participating, I immediately went to my cereal pouring job because that’s what I knew how to do. I was pouring when our toaster lady, Barb, asked me if I thought the industrial-sized block of hard yellow stuff was butter or margarine? I told her that I hadn’t had real butter since I joined Weight Watchers and frankly had forgotten what it looked like, much less tasted. She laughed and put the block on a plate to soften.

Before beginning to cook, we gathered in a circle to pray. Debbie asked for someone the group should pray for. Barb spoke right up; she had a friend who was recently hospitalized to adjust her depression medication. She went on to explain that her friend was having difficulty and spent a lot of time feeling very out of it, slogging through daily activities.

I listened for a bit. Then,  my impatience kicked in. I wanted to interject, to tell the group about my husband’s grandfather, who passed away a week earlier at age 98. I watched Barb talk but all I heard sounded like the teacher in Charlie Brown…”mowhr mowhr mowhr mowhr mowhr…” I wiggled my feet, readjusted my arms, smiled a plastic smile.

Here I was, in a circle of women praying, yet instead of concentrating on the needs of others, I was concerned only with my own.

Suddenly, a loud “crack” rang out from the kitchen, startling us.


Someone shouted: “The toaster is on fire!”

The prayer circle rushed to the commercial-sized toaster. Atop was a broken plate with butter pouring into the flames.

“Holy God, it’s on fire!” Barb exclaimed as she tried to find something to put it out.

“Find the baking soda,” Sandy yelled.

I crawled on top of the counter from the customer side so I could reach around and pull down the papers tacked to the bulletin board dangerously close to the rear of the burning toaster.

The good news was that the fire department shares a building with the soup kitchen.  Yes, Kim actually called 911, something she and the 911 operator found amusing. So in comes the fire chief with two young lads behind him and he’s toting a fire extinguisher. I decided that now would be a good time to go outside for a cigarette because the kitchen was filled with smoke.

Barb was already outside. She was pacing back and forth explaining to herself out loud how foolish she was to soften butter — or was it margarine? — by putting it on top of the toaster. It occurred to me how hard she was on herself. This is a woman, after all, who makes sure that the plastic forks are all facing the same direction. As the perpetrator of soup kitchen calamity — the cause of the toaster inferno — she must be in utter agony.

Wait. How selfish I had been for not wanting to take the time to hear Barb’s prayer. Now, in a sense, I was to blame.

Why is it that when things that are beyond our control happen, we seek blame as a way to control them?

The firemen snuffed out the flames, then brought over a fan to suck out the smoke. I walked back into the kitchen to find some of the customers had grabbed cereal bowls and started munching on the toast, all the while complaining about the smoke.

I started breaking eggs over the grill, trying to be useful. Kim took off to her house to get her two-slice toaster, as did Sandy.  All of us got into action to get people fed.  And all of us reassured Barb that she was loved.

The kitchen hit the same stride that I witnessed the week before. The women counted plates under their breath, trying to keep track of how many customers were fed. Pots clanged as customers bussed their own tables.

I noticed one of the customers at the dishwasher with an armload of dishes, clutching her purse and reaching for a dishcloth. This is what was important, I thought: The everydayness of clanging and movement, of people being nourished by one another’s prayers in action.

This, I realized, was the great toaster lesson.

salsm.jpgSueAnn Jackson-Land, a Soul’s Code contributor who last wrote about her struggle to lose weight, is a writer living in Sudbury, Ontario. She is grateful to be breathing, given the opportunity to learn, to forgive (and be forgiven) and go on.

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13 Comments on “The Great Toaster Lesson”

  1. what a wonderfully written vivid account sueann. i enjoy reading your articles on soulscode. this one reminded me of when i worked at a daycare and over-nuked one of the children's vegetarian meals in the microwave for about 10 almost started a fire. i guess i'm not a domestic goddess after all! keep up the writing sueann, i find your work very inspirational.


  2. This is like a Kodak Moment of enlightenment, and with a human, common touch that so many spiritual teachers, whether an Eckhart Tolle or Indian mystic, lack.

    But they all arrive at the same point: freedom from internal conflict is just what you described. Not thinking about the past, not thinking about what has to be done. Doing one thing at a time. Right now. With some honor and commitment to the doing as the end in itself -- not a means to an end :)

  3. Exactly. This piece is, ultimately, about *presence* -- living in the moment as a way to achieve the ultimate goal: Serenity.

  4. Once again a beautifully written peice. Sueannie, keep concentrating and working on this skill as you have what it takes to be an incredibly sucessful writer.....

  5. SueAnn - You look as stunning as you sound!!

    Very beautiful piece of writing. and it was so much more fun than reading the Spectrum closures!!! It's amazing and soo good to see the real talent in people. Keep it up!!

  6. You have a way of telling a story so easily that I'm always surprised by an incredibly astute insight -- Why is it that when things that are beyond our control happen, we seek blame as a way to control them -- making such a casual appearnance amid the "clanging and movement".

    You really are brilliant. Can't wait to celebrate the Giller I am certain you will one date win!!!

    Love Jennifer

  7. Hi Sue Ann:

    What a great message. You have really found your niche. Keep it up.
    Love, Cora

  8. I love your in-the-moment writing style. You eloquently write what you observe and think. This was an excellent example of how many of us guilt ourselves into blame. More importantly how we can make choices to correct problems.

    Go easy on yourself girl. It was enough that the toast was burnt, don't burn yourself.

    Many times, thoughts race through our minds faster than we can sort or place in order of priority. Thinking about your father-in-law didn't make you selfish, it was just a really important aspect of your life at that time. The reality is you were helping others, you helped keep the fire from spreading and you (others included) got back to the selfless act of feeding others. Looking for blame (cause is a better word) is a good way of exploring the origins of chaos or tragedy and preparing a plan for the future. That's how inquests work to prevent accidents.

    Keep writing, it's entertaining, useful, healthy and it helps many.

  9. I'm so glad you're sharing a part of you with others. I enjoyed this, and look forward to reading more of you. K.

  10. Loved it SueAnn and keep up the good work with ministering to those in need. You already know it's as good for you as it is for them.
    Miss ya.

  11. Keep writing, SueAnne, could almost smell that hot fat in the toaster!

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