With Passover and Easter fast upon us, it hardly seems appropriate to step outside the Judeo-Christian ethos, but for whatever reason, Buddhist teachers make a lot of sense to me. I’m not a terribly religious guy, generally speaking- I’ve even once been called a “bad Jew” by someone who evidently fancied herself a “good Jew”- and I don’t particularly fret about it. Organized religion must not sit well with someone as disorganized as I am.
Whatever sort of a soul I have, though, I’ve spent a lot of time soul-searching of late. I’m well aware that the most recent threat to Feast’s well-being- after fourteen months of empty dining room, wave after wave of supply line interruptions, inflation in both food and labor costs, and the continuing repairs and maintenance of equipment that ranges from a few years old to already-old-when-I-bought-it twenty-one years ago- the attrition of our staff and the difficulty in replacing them, is largely the result of a trend that’s happening everywhere. People are leaving our industry, and a host of others, in droves, and I can’t say I blame them. There are a few whom I’m glad to see go, though they’re definitely the minority. A lot of them are people I consider friends or even family by now, and whatever reasons they give along with their notice, I can’t help but engage in a little self-evaluation. What have I personally done to contribute to someone wanting to leave Feast? Am I doing enough? Am I listening enough? Am I repairing or changing or looking enough from a perspective I hadn’t considered? I doubt it. But I also wonder if I’m capable.
Owning a business right now means walking a difficult line. For two years and change, the majority of humanity has slid down the slippery slope of turning inward. I watch it every day, in the kitchen here, in traffic out there, in the dining room or the grocery store. Each of us has suffered in a different way, but each of us has suffered in a way so particular to ourselves that it’s not only easy to forget the plights of others, it’s actually difficult to remember the plights of others.
I’m watching our staff’s departures tip into the other staff like dominoes; with each new decampment comes a ripple that makes everyone else’s workday that much more difficult, and with each new difficulty comes another turning inward, focused on our newfound pain and misery. I’m hugely guilty of it myself- we’re now short-handed in the kitchen and the dining room, the catering department and the wine shop, and I see myself focusing on whichever plight is most immediate to the detriment of the other three chunks of Feast, and the concomitant turning inward of the people in each of them. We’re wearier and wearier, all of us, and I know that it’s my responsibility to look after all of them, not to wonder why they’re not sympathizing with me.
At the same time, we all have to look after ourselves well enough to provide ourselves with the energy to help everyone else. You put your own oxygen mask on first when the cabin loses pressure, right? So yes, I’ve been turned inward. I’ve been focused on how overwhelmed I am despite the three and a half dozen people vying for Most Overwhelmed around me. Until today.
Every now and again, something bumps you back on course, and today, I was out at Casa Alitas bring food that you and we had donated to 250 refugees. I was just about to unload my truck when I was asked to move it so that the arriving bus full of refugees could deposit another wave of broken humanity onto the sidewalk. I pulled up and watched them step from the bus to the entrance- people who could have been members of the staff here, who could have been my parents or my children. I looked into the clear plastic bags in their hands, jumbled with translucent pharmacy bottles, stuffed animals, loose papers and other negligible comforts. I looked at their dulled eyes, aimed at their own shuffling feet. For the hundredth time since I started doing this, bringing food to people who need it, I felt tears run down my face.
Tonglen is the practice- the meditation, rather- in Tibetan Buddhism translated loosely as giving and receiving. The gist of it is this, scary and painful as it sounds: as you inhale, you deliberately breathe in people’s pain and suffering, and as you exhale, you breathe out compassion and the wish for everyone’s well-being. I watched for maybe ten minutes today, the exhaustion and the cumulative suffering of one small busload of people, and was immediately snapped out of my own feelings of overwhelmedness. It wasn’t out of pity or comparison of my First World problems to their Third World devastation. It was watching human beings uprooted, rudderless and dispossessed, and feeling their pain, and at the same time feeling the surge of emotion that comes with watching other people, complete strangers, take them in and set to work on making their lives better. I took in pain and desperation and I watched people hold an arm and an elbow, make a phone call for them to a brother in Boston, or make a bus or plane reservation. I watched people dish up the food that you sent them, and help them find shoes, or a dress, or an apple, or a place to lie down.
So as much as I turn inward, my goal today is to take inward with me someone’s pain, take it away from them and hold it fast; and when I turn outward to offer a chatty greeting and help with the wine list, I’ll send it with a wish to alleviate whatever suffering I come across: a member of the staff here who’s worked on a supposed day off for weeks in a row; a woman volunteering at the welcome center who tells me that her son, who played with my brother as a child, is now deceased; a Brazilian man with a mask around his chin and a t-shirt in a language he doesn’t speak. “Muito,” he tells me as the bus empties itself onto the sidewalk. “Muito sofrimento.”
Thank you, everyone who’s contributed to our donation runs, or who’s mentioned them to someone else.
Thank you for keeping our staff employed, for picking up a snack
or a bottle of wine,
or making a reservation for Easter
or our wine dinner.
Thank you for alleviating someone’s- anyone’s- suffering.