April 5, 2009
Serenity now…insanity later…
SO SAID LLOYD BRAUN
in the Seinfeld episode featuring Frank Costanza’s ploy of lowering his blood pressure, as a relaxation tape advised him, with the mantra, “Serenity Now!” Except that he wasn’t breathing into it, but yelling it, arms in the air, “SERENITY NOW! SERENITY NOW!”
Meanwhile Kramer has developed the codeword “Hoochie Mama” to signal George when to turn the water on to hose down some neighborhood kids.
Lloyd, who is working with George and his father to sell computers, tells him, “You know, you should tell your dad that ’serenity now’ thing doesn’t work. It just bottles up the anger, and eventually, you blow.” George replies, “What do you know? You were in the nut house.” “What do you think put me there?” asks Lloyd. “I heard they found a family in your freezer,” says George. And Lloyd, somehow looking both serene and insane, says, “Serenity now. Insanity later.”
You really ought to lay off that Serenity Now stuff, says George to his dad. What am I supposed to say, Frank asks. “Hoochie Mama?” suggests George.
Serenity is overrated, anyway.
YOU’RE NO FUN ANY MORE
In the same episode, Jerry learns to release his feelings, not bottle them up, and tells George, “Letting my emotions out was the best thing I’ve ever done. Sure, I’m not funny anymore, but there’s more to life than making shallow, fairly obvious observations.”
I had an instructor, in Berkeley, in the Alexander Technique, a body posture and movement practice, who told me she used to be a typical trash-talkin’ New Yorker, until she worked all her kinks out with the Technique; now her friends tell her she has lost her edge.
Once I showed up at an office Christmas party in Portland wearing a festive Wonder Woman-style sequined bustier, a silver star ornament hanging from a green satin ribbon, and a red headband that said HO! HO! HO! in white letters. Well, anyway, that’s what it said in the mirror. In real life, it was upside-down and said ¡OH ¡OH ¡OH. I asked the host, my boss, what kind of party this was going to be and he said, “I think that depends on you.” Well, since I’ve been “narcotized into normalcy,” as I like to call it, no longer does any kind of party depend on me. I am sure to not be the life of it, if I even go to it. Yep, once you’ve settled down, mellowed out, wised up, found Jesus, achieved enlightenment, you’re no fun any more. You’re too serene. Or, perhaps, complacent. Or, perhaps, have a sense of entitlement and are prideful.
“MAN IS A PERPETUALLY WANTING ANIMAL,”
wrote Abraham Maslow in his 1943 paper, “A Theory of Human Motivation,” wherein he introduced his “hierarchy of needs”—physiological, safety, love, esteem, and self-actualization—often presented graphically as a pyramid. Man seeks to satisfy the “basest” needs first, i.e., once physiological needs are met, he may then concern himself with safety, then with love, then with esteem needs, and finally, perhaps, reach self-actualization, all in combinations as varied as the human race.
Quite often, when a need is satisfied, we forget what it was to need food, or water, or shelter, or love, and take for granted that we will continue to have these things. “The average American citizen,” wrote Maslow, “is experiencing appetite rather than hunger when he says ‘I am hungry.’ He is apt to experience sheer life-and-death hunger only by accident and then only a few times through his entire life.”
CULTURAL ANTHROPOLOGIST ANGELES ARRIEN’S
AudioCD Gratitude describes gratitude as “the essential practice for happiness and fulfillment.” The Spring 2009 Sounds True catalog comments, “For most of us, gratitude comes easy when things are going well. But putting it into practice when life throws you a curve ball is another story.”
Of course the difficulty “despite philosophies profound,” as I once put it, is putting those philosophies into practice in our day-to-day lives. As my friend Dave responded to my rebuttal to his email re my praise of cats mastering the present moment,
OF COURSE, YOU HAVEN’T JUST BEEN HANGED
at Owl Creek Bridge. The noose didn’t snap and give you a second chance at life. You didn’t hold your breath under water until air was the most precious thing in the world. You didn’t swim until your limbs begged for relief, and grasped at the earth, now that you had air, as the most precious thing in the world. With air in your lungs and your feet on the ground, you are able to stop to smell the flowers and see everything as the miracle it is. Until your life is threatened again; then survival and safety are again paramount. The more needs that are satisfied, suggests Maslow, the more we are free to concentrate on “higher” needs like reaching self-actualization. But unless you’re in a war zone, it’s unlikely you can maintain your life at fever pitch, thanking God every step of the way for everything you’ve been granted. Still, gratitude as a way of life makes sense to me.
HOW ABOUT THAT?
Having long intended to visit it, it is serendipitous to find Café Gratitude near my friend Beau’s art studio down the street, at 20th and Harrison. I feel, crossing the threshold, that I have entered a sort of energy vortex, a relaxed, nourishing, appreciative, collaborative energy. Beau warns me, though, that you can’t just walk in to Café Gratitude. You will most likely be greeted with the “question of the day,” and you’ll find that servers and staff may also act as personal spiritual advisors. Also to be prepared for the price tag.
NO SOONER DO I ENTER
and sit down at the counter, than I am offered a free tarot card reading from the Reverend Jo Ellen Michelle Talley, who offers “professional witchcraft services” (including custom spell work) and free readings on Fridays. “Blessed be,” reads her business card. “No problem too big, too small, or too weird.” From under her big floppy hippie hat, she tells me to think of a question and draw a card. I reject, Did I do/am I doing the right thing, because I know I did and am; I think and think of how to phrase my current concerns and finally settle on, “What is my future as a writer?” I draw the five of rods (or wands), which pictures five men, each holding a staff upright on an uneven field, seemingly in competition or struggle. The five, she says right off the bat, is indicative of self-expression. The five men pictured are in competition, apparently sparring or dueling, but I should remember that none of the competitors is better than I; we are just all struggling toward the same thing, an opportunity to be published and recognized. As long as I express myself and hold my talent high, I will get noticed and somehow fit into the marketplace. She pointed out that it was an uneven playing field, with everyone having something different to offer, and that it’s not an easy path. “There’s always room at the top,” I tell her. Rather canny, I thought.
Before she leaves, I show her my treasures I just acquired from the Japanese home furnishings store on Harrison St.: a finely worked wooden mask of a desperate man with a clever hairdo and beard, and a mounted set of bull horns (I’m a Taurus; I collect bull miscellany) from rural Japan.
I TURN MY ATTENTION
to the menu, jam-packed with wholesome vegan food and drink. Among the Elixirs I can choose are: I AM RENEWED, I AM ENLIVENED, I AM BRIGHT, COMMITTED or FIREY. Among Juices—I AM REJUVENATED, WORTHY, HEALTHY, SUCCULENT, ALOHA, CHARISMATIC and I AM COMPASSIONATE. Sodas include I AM EFFERVESCENT, REFRESHED, or SASSY, while Smoothies offer I AM LUSCIOUS, I AM GRACE, I AM FRUITFUL and I AM PEACHY. With a milkshake I could be COOL, BEAUTIFUL, ETERNALLY BLESSED, ETERNALLY YOUTHFUL or ETERNALLY SWEET.
The Children’s Offerings are I AM A WINNER, I AM A STAR, I AM A HERO, I AM INCREDIBLE, and I AM BERRY AWESOME and the Drinks I AM YOUTHFUL and I AM SWEET, all great things for children to feel they are, until they are sure they are.
Among the Appetizers are all sorts of appetizing things I could be: I AM ABUNDANT (One Plate…8 Affirmations: I am Happy, Giving, Exciting, Honoring, Opulent, Relishing, Insightful, and Thriving!), and I AM HONORING, INSIGHTFUL or GENEROUS. Among soups I could be THANKFUL, THRIVING or WARM. Salads offer I AM SATISIFED, FULFILLED, FESTIVE, GIVING or DAZZLING. Among “Live” Pizzas I could be PASSIONATE or SENSATIONAL. Entrees offer the daily special, I AM CELEBRATING, plus ELATED or CHEERFUL. If you’re feeling GRATEFUL, ACCEPTING, WHOLE or YO SOY MUCHO, choose one of the grain bowls. For breakfast, you’re either YO SOY BONITA, I AM GREAT, PLENTY GREAT, BRIGHT-EYED or PEACE.
DESSERTS ARE A TRULY FESTIVE OCCASION.
I could be either RAPTURE, CHERISHED, CREATIVE, LOVELY, MAGNIFICENT, PERFECT, DEVOTED, ADORING, AMAZING, BLISS or AWAKENING. For nut-milk ice cream, I could be PRAISING, DESERVING, INNOCENT, “I AM I AM,” or BELOVED. Other sweet treats include being PLAYFUL, JOY, SUPER, SUPER HOT, or DELIGHTED.
With a simple cup of tea, I could be JOYFUL, GLORIOUS, CHARMED or OPEN; with an Herbal Tisane (caffeine-free tee), I could be PRECIOUS, VITAL, CARING, AWED or COZY. “Delicious Peace” Ugandan coffee offers ENERGETIC, COURAGEOUS, LOVED, ECSTATIC, MARVELOUS and BLESSED.
I note that there are predicates both nominative and adjective following the I AM—nouns such I AM PEACE, I AM JOY, I AM GRACE, I AM BLISS, as well as the descriptors glorious, dazzling, worthy, etc.. That’s the idea, to not aspire to these things, but in and with your life, to be them. Not I am happy, but I am happiness.
I choose the “I AM PRESENT” appetizer, mushroom bruschetta—sourdough buckwheat flatbread topped with creamy cashew mozarella, marinated mushroom confit, and fresh herbs. It is sensational! I accompany it with the I AM REFRESHED house lemonade—the best I have ever had. Never having had, to my knowledge, a vegan dessert, I choose the I AM DEVOTED coconut cream pie, to see how creamy it might be. It cuts through like chiffon, like whipped egg whites, and is plenty sweet enough for any sweet tooth.
There’s an aura of good vibes about this place, I tell the counterperson, Billy. If anyone came in here throwing negative clank, it would be neutralized pretty quickly. Billy asks “the question of the day,” which is “What about nature do you find most inspiring?” With far less thought than my rumination on my future, I answer that is an opportunity for recognition and reinforcement that all the living things around me, the trees, grass, ponds, animals, air and I partake of the same aliveness, that we are many manifestations of one life-force. Billy nods in appreciation.
On the wall the café has posted “Our Four Insights”—Be the space for all of it, Create a sacred space, Be in the game, Be an invitation. Another sign offers a Thanksgiving prayer: “Great Spirit, thank you for all the beings that contributed to this meal and for the vitality of this food. We relish our bounty and revere your creation.”
IT TURNS OUT
www.cafegratitude.com’s mission statement reads: “Café Gratitude is our expression of a world of plenty. Our food and people are a celebration of our aliveness. We select the finest organic ingredients to honor the earth and ourselves, as we are one and the same. We support local farmers, sustainable agriculture and environmentally friendly products. Our food is prepared with love. We invite you to step inside and enjoy being someone that chooses: loving your life, adoring yourself, accepting the world, being generous and grateful every day, and experiencing being provided for. Have fun and enjoy being nourished.” And once I’d stepped inside, that was indeed my experience.
The down side: the tab. Everything is premium-priced and my tab for appetizer ($11), lemonade ($5!/8 oz.) and dessert ($8) plus tax and tip comes to $33.00. Ouch! With the check I am handed some food for thought in the form of an illustrated game card depicting “My Life” as Belief, Speech, Actions, Thoughts and Attitude. On the back I am asked, “In what sense are you not completely honoring your body, i.e.: exercise, diet, rest, beauty, health, etc.” and “What stops you from honoring yourself completely: not enough time, money, bad habits, etc.” I do have to face up to some of those things. I’m offered two “River Guides:” 1. Take on treating your body as precious. 2. Why wouldn’t you care for yourself like a newborn infant, or someone you love? A lot to chew on.
I tell the cashier in parting, “I…AM SATISFIED, and I…AM GRATEFUL.”
“You are awesome,” he says.
“I…AM AWESOME,” I say.
“You are supportive,” he continues. Thanks for coming in and supporting our café.”
I leave feeling one thing they hadn’t offered—FABULOUS. And more ENERGETIC than I usually do on any return trip home from the day’s sojourns, when I sometimes wind down like a clock and, with effort, reach my couch, where I AM NONFUNCTIONAL.
IT IS RELAXING AND WONDERFUL
to think of all those beautiful things you can be (or are) on any given day. I AM ETERNALLY BLESSED. So much nicer than I AM IRRITABLE or I AM COMPLAINING or I AM OWED SO MUCH MORE BY THE WORLD.
The Café Gratitude website also tells me that founder Matthew Engelhart “started training in the being of abundance in 1984 and today he is skillful at being able to keep his attention on all there is to be grateful for. His presence inspires us to be present to the endless beauty and bounty of life. What he shares isn’t positive thinking, it is about developing the ability to go beyond our own petty wants and desires to connect with the grandeur of all of life.”
As I walk away from the café, I find stenciled on the street yet another affirmation: “You are the one I wanted to find.” To which some other wit added, “Between the sheets.”
Stranger still, I come upon a poster on the outside wall of a building, not credited to anyone, which honors all farmers:
“Thank you for doing the dirty work. Thank you for keeping us alive and keeping the land from being buried under concrete. You have the most important job. Thank you for carrying on the idea that not everything is made by a machine. It takes a lot of time to grow food. You did a good job. Bless you and your family and all of your lineage. Thank you for the sweet potatoes for my pie.”
A THOUGHT FROM THICH NHAT HANH,
activist, writer, teacher, poet, Zen master and Buddhist monk, who was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1967 by Martin Luther King, Jr.; bizarrely, one-third of the Prize money that year was allocated to the Main Fund, and two-thirds to the Special Fund of the Peace Prize funds. WTF?
I admire the man tremendously. I have given out many copies of Peace is Every Step, and went on a walking meditation with him and his Plum Village (France) monastery entourage in Oakland. I was wearing black-and-gold robes and was instantly identified by the pointman who was greeting people at the BART station as one who needed direction to the event. Nhat Hanh was exiled from Vietnam in 1966 for his peace activism. I was favorably impressed, when first dating my ex, the Silver Fox, that he knew who TNH was.
In his book The Art of Power, Nhat Hanh asks, “What does power mean to us?”
”What we want most: freedom and happiness,” yes? Most people’s quest for power involves money, usually amassing a lot of it, but it doesn’t necessarily make them happy. Let me tell you, money can buy a bed, but not sleep. It can buy a clock, but not time. It can buy you a book, but not knowledge. It can buy you a position, but not respect. It can buy you medicine, but not health. It can buy you blood, but not life. So you see, money isn’t everything and it often causes pain and suffering. I tell you all this because I want to help take away your pain and suffering. So send me all your money and I will suffer for you. (Lame internet joke.)
AS I ASSEMBLE
this column at the Church Street Café, and regard the croissant sandwich in front of me, I stop to marvel at how great a collaboration of effort went into its presence on my table. The wheat of the croissant had to be grown, harvested, milled, packaged, and delivered to market. The butter involved milking cows, churning, the fabrication of the packaging and the printing on it, the transportation to buyers. Then the preparation and baking of the croissant, its delivery to the café. The tomatoes on it: grown, harvested, boxed, delivered to market, obtained by the café’s buyer from its supplier. The eggs: chickens had to be raised, eggs collected, packaged, delivered to market in refrigerated transport. Before the mayonnaise, the oil had to be extracted from its source, the butter as above, then the mixing and whipping of the sauce, the fabrication of the jar, production and application of the label, shipping to distributors and buyers. The lettuce was grown in a field, harvested, crated, sent to market.The sandwich: All ingredients were sliced and assembled by hand by the staff, served on a plate someone had to have made, and carried to me by a server, with a napkin that started out as a tree. The labor and effort that went into my lunch, which I might have consumed while reading and not given a thought to, makes the world go round. And for that, I am satisfied, and grateful.
The author’s friend Tom on the street so many of us don’t realize we live on
I AM GRATEFUL for my readers. Blessed be.
copyright Alexandra Jones 2009