Photo by Peter Cunningham

Yesterday I wrote about what stays behind after a person dies. About visiting with a friend, a new widower, walking around the house he and his deceased wife shared, and how vibrant the emptiness of that house was. It hit me strongly how much my eyes and mind fixate on forms, and it is when those forms are gone that I can sense something else that had always been there, more palpable than before, a deep, live awareness.

But we also leave something else after we die, too: the results of our actions.

A day after I visited with my widower friend, I sat down in a café 5 minutes’ drive from my house and listened to Kirsten Levitt describe to me her vision for the Stone Soup Café, of which she is head chef and Executive Director.

Stone Soup Café began at the headquarters of the Zen Peacemakers when it owned the Montague Farm. Most of our work involved creating programs and supporting spiritually based peacemakers around the world, but we wanted to do some direct service, so one day Bernie said: “Let’s just feed people.”

We called it the Café (it got the name Stone Soup later), and each Saturday volunteers cooked a big meal and laid it out in heavy pots on serving tables. The meals were fresh and fabulous, using a lot of organic produce we got for free from neighboring farms. They included meat and vegetarian alternatives, and lots of dessert.

Since this was a rural area with little or no public transportation, many of us drove all around in cars to pick people up from their homes, bring them over for the communal meal, then drive them back. Others took the kids into the woods for hikes and games. At various times acupuncturists, massage therapists, and even a doctor came to give free treatments. And we almost always had live music lined up.

When we gave up the Farm, the Café looked like one of those ideas whose brief lifetime had come and gone. Instead, Ariel Pliskin revived it in Greenfield. He and his housemates began cooking those great meals again and he persuaded All Souls Church to make their lower floor available for the sit-down meal. Kirsten Levitt came on as the head chef. No one was paid, everything was done by volunteer labor.

Those early meals in Greenfield featured at first just a few dozen people. Our Zen group, Green River Zen Center, was sitting in Greenfield at the time, and after the Saturday morning schedule we’d hurry over to the church to cook. Many of the participants stayed to do council, a circle process, in the end, and it was there that Bernie talked of the importance of feeding people with dignity. “My dream in Montague, and now here, is that we prepare delicious, healthy meals, not just sandwiches and a cookie, and that we will do this in such a way that when people sit down and eat, they don’t know if their neighbor is a millionaire or a homeless person. We are feeding everyone with dignity.”

More and more people came. Soon the Café was feeding 130-150 people every Saturday, with wall-to-wall tables and chairs for all the families coming in. Firsts were served, then seconds, and after that you could take as much as you want home in the paper plates and bowls that were offered.

Years later, when the pandemic broke out, I was afraid the volunteers wouldn’t want to come, so I came that first Friday night of the lockdown to cut vegetables and prep. And you know what? People came. At first, they dribbled in, then more came, and even more. Prep tables were laid out in the dining room so that we could maintain distance as we prepared everything for the cooks on Saturday morning.

Multiple courses were cooked, packed in beautiful boxes, and the boxes put inside bags with the Stone Soup logo on them. Every Saturday at noon people would line up to pick up these bags and drivers brought bags of food to the homes of those who didn’t wish to go out.

“We now cook 500 meals every weekend,” Kirsten says to me over tea. “Two-thirds of them go to people’s homes and one-third to those who line up outside. We can no longer feed people indoors; we just don’t have the space.”

Is that another reason for the vision to fade? For Kirsten, it’s an excuse to gear up, not down.

“We’re looking for a new facility, not just for a café but also for a Stone Soup culinary institute,” she tells me.

She knows what she wants: A large space in which people can sit to eat, with dignity (she emphasizes those two words all the time, just as Bernie did years ago). A big commercial kitchen for food prep as well as for classes and classrooms to teach food prep/service and basic job skills for students. She wants to prioritize people who’ve been unemployed, including those coming out of prison or jail. There will also be someone on the other end to help place them in jobs.

She thinks it’ll take two buildings and has her eye on a property that’ll require renovation of an existing structure and construction of a second building as well. Her plan is for people to eat in that building 7 days a week, the prep to be handled by students at the culinary institute. And she feels confident because they just won a big state grant enabling them to pursue all this.

I sat there, listening to her paint this vision, talking about how much she’d learned from Bernie’s Three Tenets, the first of which is not-knowing, opening yourself wide to the beck and call of the universe. And I couldn’t help but think of the small meal we began years ago half-a-mile from where I live now.

“Let’s just feed people,” the man had said. The universe listened.

You can see more about Stone Soup Café here.

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