In the latest writing class I took at Washington University in St. Louis, our teacher encouraged us to write an “ethical will” in which we shared with our audience what we leave behind to them. In the following blog is my ethical will to you, my readers.
Sunday afternoon at the local coffee shop. Outside the air is chilly and windy. There is a slight drizzle of constant rain gently coming down in a slant. It makes pools of water on the gray concrete outside. The sky is gray as well, loaning itself to the lazy Sunday feel. Next to me, the coffee shop owner sits in a red leather chair. She’s wearing jeans, a purple t-shirt, and tennis shoes. Her wild, short, curly black hair, with a tint of gray, wraps itself all around her head. She sits in a contemplative mood and listens to two men in companion chairs talking about everything and nothing at once. One is in his late 30s or early 40s, his balding head and wire-rimmed glasses making it harder for me to discern. He’s wearing a red fleece jacket and black running pants and tennis shoes. The other guy is a recent high school graduate who is taking summer courses at the nearby community college. He too is wearing red, but it is a long-sleeved buttoned Oxford shirt. Their conversation has been ranging from the German exchange program to music and other intellectual pursuits. In turn, the coffee shop’s only other worker is taking a break, and has joined their circle. His long, brown hair is twisted back in dreadlocks that hang down his back. He has them pulled back into a makeshift ponytail by wrapping and tying one of his dreads around the whole. He’s dressed in all black, and his fuzzy, unkempt beard adds the last “hippy” touch to his look. He is playing his guitar in soft, repetitive chords. It’s quite lovely and leaves me feeling a sense of contentment and peace. Completing the coffee house scene are other patrons who are also eating, talking, reading, writing, or playing chess.
The building is old and sits on the corner of Main Street. Inside, it has been stripped down to the bones to reveal the tin-plated ceiling which is painted white, and the hardwood floors that are lightly polished, but already becoming worn by the regulars coming in and out for their morning coffee or sitting down at a rickety table at lunchtime for a bowl of homemade soup. The huge windows and the glass tiles above them allow natural light to filter through and so the industrial ceiling’s track lighting is set to a soft, matted orange glow, which warms the entire space. The thick, white ceramic mugs and saucers sitting on the tables reflect the light and give off a message to those of us with our hands wrapped around our steaming hot coffees and teas: “Sit. Stay. All of your thoughts are welcomed here.” This message is creatively hidden in the daily specials and drink menus that are neatly and artistically illustrated with colored chalk on old-school blackboards.
Coffee shops have always welcomed the artist, the writer, the philosopher. It is a place where shabby chic and historical architecture meets old souls and weary travelers. Where mothers can sit for a minute with their babies on their laps, or where old men can come in and play checkers and argue like school boys again. Where lovers sit to hold hands, or singles wait for their special someones to magically walk through the door and change their lives forever. Where artists go to meet inspiration. Fortunately, I am a few of these people rolled into one and who has the luxury to waste away a lazy Sunday afternoon and contemplate her existence. A deep and heavy thought for sure, but coffee shops are set up for this type of eccentricity. My thoughts today meander around the topic of my truest self. If I left the world today, what would I leave behind?
The first thing that comes to my mind is quite honestly material things like a house, a car, lots of clothes, a hefty savings account and a substantial life insurance policy. Yet, I know, as we all inherently know of each of ourselves material things are not our essence. Still, I try to put into realistic terms what it is about me that is the unique quality of which I have to contribute. “My sense of adventure,” I quickly scribble in my notes. Yes, this is what I would leave behind. Then, I overhear the group’s conversation (as if on cue) about skydiving, and who among them have done it or ever will. In my mind I answer their question, “Hell no!” and so I think maybe I’m not being realistic when I say “adventure” because putting my life in danger is not what I deem adventurous. Yet, I do like to travel to different places, whether it’s a different town, state, or country so I can see what others think, how they live, what they consider beautiful, why they choose to live the way they do, and what they consider entertainment, culture and art. I need to know and see the human element and human desires and how they are acted out and expressed. It’s my main motivation for racking up countries on my passport and for filling up my gas tank in small-town USA. I have an adventurous heart and a curious mind, and the more I learn about other people and cultures, the more I learn about myself.
The group is now sitting quietly, eating and drinking their coffee. The worker with the dreadlocks is again playing his guitar. It truly is a still moment, and a chance to experience the sublime. Stillness and peace is hard to find and sustain, and in the minute it took me to write this, all four of them are back to talking about life, music and food again. Being an observer, I am not phased by this shift because I’m now focused on my silence. I have learned, rather am still learning, to be quiet more. To listen. To cultivate a sense of stillness and openness in my heart that allows me to let in more of my surroundings and the people who come into my life. I am getting better at not escaping the moment, regardless of the emotions that show up, but to live inside the moment as much as possible. Yoga has taught me this. For 7 years now, I have been practicing at my friend’s yoga studio (down the street from this coffee shop) and have taken workshops with master teachers. I’ve learned that yoga, life in general, is less about the poses (and the material things) and more about the breath and the acceptance of the moment: where you are in life is right where you should be. No changing it until it is ready to change. I’m trying to apply that philosophy to my day-to-day life as much as possible: don’t obsess about what you think needs to be achieved or how you think others think you should live it. Rest fully and relish fully what is presented to you and appreciate how this moment can shape your future.
A few chuckles from the two men in the red leather chairs trickle their way to my ears. Spontaneously, I smile. Laughter is such a beautiful thing. A smile is a quick way to adjust mental disarray (regardless of how cliched it may seem to read and write this statement, it’s true). Cultivating this element of lightness inside of yourself does help balance all the range of emotions that bog us down. Laughter, smiling, a joyful thought can diffuse any situation. A sense of humor, is a gift. For me, my sense of humor has slowly been slipping out of my mouth or coming out lightning quick. My facebook statuses make me laugh as I type them, and I find that people are reacting to that silly side of me that I have trapped inside my mind all of these years. For me, my sense of humor has been coxed out of me slowly over the past few years; now that it is here in full bloom, I am grateful for it. I’m a passionate woman with the essence (ah, that word again) of a fierce warrior. My totem animal as a child used to be a tiger, and it would visit me in my dreams. The tiger was beautiful, elegant, graceful, strong and gentle to me. It would lay down beside my dream-self and let me sleep next to it, letting me curl into its thick, soft fur, and warm body. Always, however, its strength, power and quickness and ferocity could be felt like a current of electricity passing through a live wire. As I grew up, the tiger left my dreams, but its spirit, its element, never left me. At times, that warrior spirit in me gets me in trouble because in stressful situations I can be reactionary and quick to accuse, judge, and act swiftly. Other times, it comes in quite handy. Through my life experiences and the gifts of peace and love from my teachers in my life, I am learning how to not let the fire consume my energy as much. Instead, laughter and my sense of humor are pulled from my heart and mind and I try to see the absurd and ridiculous in all stressful situations. I laugh even when I have cried, yelled, screamed, and raged. I laugh, or better yet, I make others laugh, in those rare moments when going “over the edge” seems possible.
Humor, along with my curiosity and sense of adventure, helps me filter situations so I can extract the beauty in the ordinary and link it to common threads in us all. “What makes us tick?” is a question I ask myself (whenever I’m not contemplating my navel or scheming of clever ways to go about doing anything in a creative manner). I have been trying to answer this question with a sense of wonderment, and lately have tried to add a more spiritual component to my observations so as to see the interconnectedness between myself and others and between myself and nature. This last spiritual component to “who I am” or my being is harder for me to define. I have barely scratched the surface of that, and so I will leave that for another day. Like a sign, the dreadlocked hippy puts down his guitar and begins eating his pesto sandwich, and the other two men have left. The owner has stepped into the back-room to do dishes and I am left alone again with only my thoughts and the soft whir of the drink cooler. I let the natural light spill onto my composition book and watch as a slight shadow is cast from my quickly moving fingers on the keyboard. The rain slowly trickles down the cold windowpanes and I snuggle my sweatshirt closer around my torso. Later, I will be home doing mundane chores and forget that I’ve even written these sentences or contemplated my essence and the truth that I am to leave behind with you.