Baking is not my thing — I struggle to measure carefully, to not spill and therefore throw off the already questionable measurement, to take the time to properly beat the eggs. It is difficult for me to wait a full minute before pouring more hot water over the coffee grounds; and you need to do it three times.
“Make slowly, slowly, Bridget”
I feel my American-ness when I am at the cafe. Mostly in my voice, that doesn’t match in cadence or volume, but also in how I charge around the tiny kitchen or want to take on those who disrespect or offend me (or something I care about). It is easy to drown things out; most of the customers are foreigners, and I draw questions and conversations. I tease, laugh, drop things, and call out the window to people I know walking up the street.
Moving quietly in her traditional Tibetan dress, smiling, with flour-covered hands, my manager disguises her resilient, courageous, and assertive character. Sometimes when things are slow, she shares stories of violence, frustration, and terror, her own and those of the women in her community — celebrating the positive, yet tinged with resignation. When I described the woman screaming in the night, she sighed and commented on the futility, and frequency, of the situation. Her dreams and difficulties, their illusory simplicity and dedicated intention, remind me of how such overwhelming violence in this world can be picked at until it has been wiped away through the collective work of many.
Now, a week or so into the volunteer work, I still spill things, but much more quietly.
This morning, feeling ill for no clear reason (generic India experience) and having slept little, I contemplated going into work an hour later. When I tried to call my manager’s phone number, it did not work; so I, slowly, slowly, climbed the five flights of stone steps up to the main road. I stood on the front stoop of the cafe for a moment, threw up over the wall, and carefully sat down, leaning against the door.
My manager arrived, smiling and waving. Today was important: we had been closed for four days (annual celebration of the anniversary), and we needed to replace all of the baked goods, clean up after a small electrical fire, and generally put life back into order. Between fresh ginger tea and moving very, very carefully, I managed to stay throughout the my shift. In America, I would have stayed home.
Sitting on a borrowed cushion, I fiddled with the tuner on my radio, attempting to find the English translation of His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s teaching.
Thousands of people had gathered in the temple complex, a select few sitting in the room proper, the rest filling the balconies and courtyard. I had slept through the morning session and was late for the afternoon one — ate a muffin while charging through the streets, consistently rushing to class wherever I am in the world.
I had circumambulated the inner temple partly out of respect and partly to see what there was to see. As I mentioned before, walking clockwise around sacred objects (kora in Tibetan) is done to gain merit. As I made my way around the building, crowds of eyes pushed me along, but for a long moment I had been able to see H. H. the Dalai Lama through the main temple opening, his elevated seat draped in gold fabric, speaking into two microphones. Young monks in saffron robes took notes while the youngest played with tiny plastic airplanes. Turning another corner, an older group of monks filled the large southern balcony, and I suddenly became incredibly aware of my gender. Moving by individuals leaning into microphones offering the various translations, I made my way back to the main seating area.
Having settled into a good spot in the lower courtyard, I had pulled out my radio, only to discover that it refused to pick up the correct frequency for English. Or maybe the problem was that the language changed on the same setting if I pointed the antenna a different direction. And French was not one of them either.
As I was messing with it, a Tibetan toddler wandered up, curious. Considering that it was already broken, I showed him how to pull the antenna up and down, which was very exciting. He took it from me and waved it around; then with a “pew, pew!” he shot at me, antenna blazing, as I died dramatically. Arguably inappropriate for a Buddhist lecture. He reached up and gently pulled the headphones out of my ears and tried to put them in his own. His embarrassed mother arrived and swept him away before I could put on some foreign language that neither of us understood but might be fun to listen to.
Eventually I did get to hear a bit of the lecture, sharing an earbud with a friend. Sitting among a crowd of Tibetans, thumbing through my prayer beads, and contemplating H. H. the Dalai Lama’s message of compassion, for everyone, even your enemies, was meaningful on its own.
But the experience of being a few feet away from him as he walked out of the hall has no words.