Fast Burners, Slow Burners


How Meditation Helped Me Build a Better S’more

Time and Productivity//March 2018 • Kristin Stangl

Photo by Chris Lawton

Gather around a campfire with marshmallows, graham crackers, and squares of milk chocolate, and you’ll see it, too. A s’more is comprised of just three ingredients — but, like most things in life, it’s all about how you approach them.


Slow Burners use their found-stick like a rotisserie, evenly burnishing their marshmallow’s surface using the heat radiating from the flames. In due time, they create a dirty blonde and slightly cracked exterior on their ‘mallow, which restrains a warm, pillowy interior for just long enough, until it reaches the chocolate-on-graham in waiting.


Fast Burners, on the other hand, thrust their marshmallow right into the flames. They wait only long enough for the ‘mallow to ignite. It sizzles and cracks, and even the Slow Burners, sitting peacefully by the fire’s outer edge, can’t help looking, wondering, “Has the Fast Burner taken it too far this time?” A few puffs to extinguish the small sugar fire on their stick reveals a blackened exterior. And the interior? It is completely erratic in temperature. Some of it bulging and oozing from the blast of heat, some of it still as firm as when the marshmallow left the bag.


I was a Fast Burner. And this was true not only in how I approached making that marshmallow into a s’more but also in how I approached making myself into an adult. And yet, all the while, I so envied what the Slow Burners were able to achieve.


Like most middle class, suburban American teens, I was catapulted from one fire into the next: high school, college, graduate school. This is privilege, yes. But the fact remained: I didn’t know what the hell I wanted from life, and it showed in my choices.


I attended a small liberal arts college in the same state where I grew up, and changed my major five times before graduation. And then I was ablaze in a new fire — law school in Nashville — before the smoke had even cleared. Three years later, I was working in the city’s public defender’s office and was worn down to a brittle, charred nub by the end of each week.


Five years passed, and I moved quickly to rebuild another version of myself as an adult — pausing only to relocate to a different part of the bonfire — a public school in New York City, to teach math to seventh graders. Weekly migraines, constant exhaustion: I was choking on the smoke. There was no way to salvage this one. I had, in the eyes of the Slow Burners, taken it too far.


It was July 2015 and there I was, needing to build myself a respectable adult life, yet again. Time to assemble the pieces and throw myself into the fire. Again. As a Fast Burner by nature, I was a pro at building a finished product that looks the part: Lawyer. Teacher. All of it said “adult;” none of it satiated me.


This is also what I’m like when the s’mores fixings come out. I have a way of letting my impatience, rather than my true preferences, dictate my approach. As a woman, I also sense that there are only so many shots I am going to get by the fire, so I better move quickly. Taking another turn, building another career, before I’m noticed.


Thirty-two years of living as a Fast Burner, sitting close to a fire fueled by anxiety, meant I had a lot to unlearn if I was going to transform myself into a Slow Burner. And when I considered the distinguishing trait of the Slow Burners I knew — my husband, more than half of my friends — it was patience. They had it in spades. They also had plenty of those perfectly roasted marshmallows I craved.


There is no pill for patience. No fast (or slow) release solution. So the first step was getting patient about getting patient. But I needed something. Just willing myself to be more patient wasn’t going to cut it. I had failed at enough New Year’s resolutions to know that.  


A few of the Slow Burners I knew were also meditators. Each of them told me how meditation helps them lean into their anxiety, to listen to those voices of self-doubt, and then move right along past those voices without judgment.


So that same summer, I visited a shop on the lower east side of Manhattan and picked up a book on meditation, along with a few smudge sticks and incense to really seal the deal. I was ready to let Enlightenment poke me in my third-eye.


For my first attempt at meditation I sat cross-legged, propped up on a pillow on the wooden floor of my Brooklyn apartment. The smoke signals of palo santo swirled around me. Serenity. A few breaths in, and I started to fidget. The air conditioner window unit kicked on, with a persistent clicking sound. The dog started to snore. My self-doubt monster whispered to me. I opened my eyes, picked up my phone, and scrolled through my Instagram feed, double-tapping my anxiety under the rug.


I tried again the next morning, after my coffee, but before walking the dog. Serenity . . . NOW PLEASE. I counted my breaths, just like the book said. One step closer to Enlightenment. One step back from the flames.


In creating an adult life for myself this time around, there was no blunt assembly. There was no university degree program. No certification. No nose dive into the fire. Just intuition and a cobbled-together two years working in an industry I was tremendously curious about since childhood: I took any job that had to do with food. Sometimes for pay, sometimes not.  Line cook. Food and drink writing. Lending my assists to food photographers and stylists. I spent a long time waiting by the fire, in the radiating heat of the flames, until I started to see the first signs of a finished product, one that was going to be what I wanted.


Two years have passed since I first started meditating. No, I don’t do it every day. Yes, I know I would feel better if I did. But still, I am slowly becoming a Slow Burner. Each time I sit and breathe (and do nothing more than that), I am reminded that I have the stamina to go slow in life in order to get what I’m really craving.


Now at a campfire, as a born-again Slow Burner, I see things a little differently.  Since I’ve got all the ingredients to build a s’more, I may as well listen to my intuition and make what I want. And what I want is this: caramelized sugar, in a gradient of browns and taupes and whites, milk chocolate dripping, the crumbly crunch of graham. And no, I don’t know how much longer I’ll need to wait out here — by the outer edge of the flames — to get what I want. I am a work in progress, just like my marshmallow. And I’m going to need a bit more time, dammit.

Did You know?

  • The first known published recipe for s'mores was in "Tramping and Trailing with the Girl Scouts." Published in 1927, the publication called them "some mores."

  • Marshmallows were first made by the ancient Egyptians using the sap of the marshmallow plant, but you probably wouldn't have recognized them. The squishy white balls of fluff we have today were invented by French candy makers in the 1800s. 


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Photo by Kristen Stangl