One Among Many
Stephen’s buzzer had just sounded and he was off in search of his arugula/lemon pizza, leaving me to sip my latte and take in the scene around me. We were in the back garden of Café Beaujolais, in Mendocino, an offshoot of the restaurant next door, founded in 1968, and made famous by Margaret Fox. We’ve never eaten inside—I’m an inverse snob–but have taken to visiting the garden, particularly for lattes, during the pandemic.
Since the beginning of the war in the Ukraine, when life on this planet became even more dismal, I’ve been consciously taking in small sweet scenes. It’s difficult not to think obsessively about the suffering of the Ukrainian people, to say nothing of the growing water shortage in California and the continuing pandemic, so I try to remember to take the time to appreciate small pleasures whenever I can.
Most of the tables and benches in the garden, placed both out in the open to capture the sun and tucked under trees in the shade, were taken, with guests either chatting while waiting for their order or already enjoying their brick-oven-wood-roasted pizzas. The air, filled with the pleasant buzz of conversation, along with the crunch of shoes on the gravel, felt clean and fresh. Stephen had found a table-for-two in the sun, near the center of the garden, with its plantings of succulents, grasses, heirloom roses and by now stately trees.
As I looked around me, I saw young couples, aging hippies, and well-appointed travelers, all enjoying themselves. The food line extended to several feet from our table, allowing me to eavesdrop on conversations about everything, from just what to order to where somebody was staying or heading next. The two women closest to me, one middle-aged and the other much younger, a braid winding down her back, were discussing a pastry the younger women was sampling.
As I relaxed, the sun warming my face, I realized that I was experiencing two sensations simultaneously: I felt at the same time very much a part of this scene and separate from it. In one sense, I was no different from the rest of the people around me. I was certainly one of an “us” relaxing in the same garden, surrounded by the same plants and people, hearing the same birds and seeing the same sky. And my intention was quite similar to everyone else’s: I was here to enjoy the food and ambiance.
Yet I was also separate from the people around me, an observer of the scene, a distinct “I” looking around me at a group of “they.” And as an observer, I was at a distance from these others–not a physical distance, but a distance created by the space of my consciousness.
It was a very pleasant sensation, being both a part of and apart from, both within the scene and outside of it. I could feel at the same time my individuality—my uniqueness—and my belonging. And isn’t it just this combination of self and others that allows us to feel safe in the world? We want to know that we are each unique in certain very special ways. But at the same time, we don’t want to feel alone and lonely. To be the fullest human beings we possibly can, we ideally sense that we are both our very special self and also part of a group larger than our individual self, a group that keeps us safe from any predators that might be lurking out there.
Now, when feeling safe is elusive for all of us, you might try my practice. Next time you participate in a group moment—a dinner, a backyard gathering, an audience at a performance—take the time to absorb the scene around you, noticing it in all its particularity. And take note of exactly how it makes you feel.