October 18, 2010

The Waitress Diaries: Lessons from the Table.

It’s a job.

Thank heavens.

Is it the job I thought I’d have at 43?

Not a chance.

It was the job I loved at 20.

I bought and paid off my very first car with tips gleaned from the chopped Cobb salad and Chardonnay crowd in a posh Connecticut suburb. Breezy and carefree with a daily personal challenge to turn up the charm for more cash, restaurant work was just the thing for a young (and mostly oblivious) lass focused on all things social.

It was the job I needed at 25.

I ran up and down the stairs at a crowded, local tavern delivering whiskeys to bleary-eyed men, and trays of beers to college students with credit cards, receiving more than one pat on the ass in return. I laughed it off, since the money was good, and felt vindicated when I finished graduate school as a teacher.

It was the job that saved me at 35.

In a sweltering office nook one long summer, I roasted over my first business plan, and paid for that freedom by waiting tables at night. I always felt like a bit of a fraud; explaining to curious customers that I did indeed, have big plans. They nodded smilingly, and perhaps in my imagination, somewhat doubtingly back at me.

Almost a decade later, with a business founded, grown, and sold, and a new entrepreneurial venture presenting those pesky entrepreneurial difficulties, I am back on the restaurant floor – having dug out and dusted off my ‘server’ persona from the back of the closet – the calm and professional waitress with a warm smile and an aim to please.

My inner life is another story. With my gratitude for dirty plates at an all time low, and my self-judgment having taken firm root in the rich soil of discontent, this line of work has presented obstacles-a-plenty to my practice of compassion and mindfulness.

In the past, I’ve always viewed food service as a means to an end.  A symbol of practicality, it has been a side note on my journey to bigger and better things. Even now, with awareness of the futility of ’bigger and better, I find it interesting that my restaurant challenges are proving to work as a different kind of means to an end – a powerful opportunity to practice compassion in the face of difficulty.

In Ani Pema Chodron’s book, When Things Fall Apart, she talks about challenge as an aid to opening one’s heart.

“When things fall apart, and we’re on the brink of we know not what, the test for each of us is to stay on that brink and not concretize. The spiritual journey is not about heaven and finally getting to a place that’s really swell. In fact, it’s this way of looking at things that keeps us miserable.

The trick is to keep exploring and not bail out, even when we find out that something is not what we thought. That’s what we’re going to discover again, and again, and again. Nothing is what we thought. I can say that with great confidence. Emptiness is not what we thought. Neither is mindfulness or fear. Compassion- not what we thought. Love. Buddha nature. Courage. These are code words for things we don’t know in our minds, but any of us could experience them. These are words that point to what life really is when we let life fall apart and we let ourselves be nailed to the present moment.”

Groundlessness is Freeing

The bottom fell out of my business, and I was petrified. Suddenly incomeless; stress, anxiety, and disappointment dominated my days, and I found myself reverting back to old, unconscious habits – ditching my practice, munching mindlessly, checking out of my relationships. Pema Chodron recommends feeling lucky when you encounter fear, as it is a rare opportunity to discover courage. As I have rediscovered a modicum of the gumption and discipline required to sit with this uncertainty, and the fear that goes with it, I have moved to a place of opening – the sun behind the clouds place, where my life feels full of new possibilities, and I have reconnected with what’s true and joyful today.

It is my intention to become intimate with fear.

Opportunities to Practice Maitri are Plentiful

Pema Chodron has described maitri (or unconditional compassion), as an “opportunity to hold yourself in the cradle of loving kindness,” as you might hold and love a baby. I revisit this image when I’ve forgotten a side of lemon, felt angry at a rude customer, or noticed that one of my co-workers is young enough to be my son. Slowly (slowly), a shift is occurring, I conjure up some of that warm, sweet-love-from-snuggling-a-new-baby feeling, and I direct it toward, gasp, myself! Works every time.

It is my intention to love myself and others unconditionally.

Mindfulness is Possible

When my arms are coated in guacamole, my clothing reeks of stale food, and I’m steeped in the fog of dirty dish steam, I often prefer to check out. Stay busy, hurry up, and the night will be over in a blink. On bad nights, I might even plan out the cocktail, or cheesy plate of enchiladas I plan to eat to encourage myself to numb out.

I am learning to stay with it. To stay present with the things I hate, and I have noticed the opposite – that is, that I also notice the things I deem pleasant; the smell of shortbread pie crust, the snap of fall air on the patio, and the crisp napkins under the shiny, shiny silverware – I have a fuller, richer and more human experience when I remember not to walk around the restaurant with my head in a proverbial bag.

It is my intention to slow down, breathe, and be present with my experience.

Everyone Deserves to be Served

Table service has helped me unearth a deeply-held,unconscious belief. Until recently, I have spent my life believing that some people deserve service and compassion, and that others don’t really merit my unconditional time. If you are homeless, shoeless, hungry or ill, I have shown up to assist you with all of my heart. I’ve worked in the Appalachian mountains, taught volunteer GED classes, built homes, tutored struggling children, served breakfast to the homeless, and brought quickbreads to our nursing home elders – always with an easy compassion that sustains and motivates me.

Is the well-dressed, impatient or demanding person less worthy of my service? Is there a hint of contempt behind my smile? Perhaps there has been. Perhaps I can learn to look upon every human with the compassion they deserve, and muster an unconditional kindness for the average restaurant diner that goes beyond my actions, and soaks into my newly tender heart.

It is my intention to cultivate compassion for myself, and all living beings.

I Can Check My Ego

When Pema Chodron speaks about the Eight Wordly Dharmas in her teachings, she points out our attachment to fame, pleasure, gain and praise. I blush to realize that I have carefully designed my entire life in pursuit of these feelings; whether onstage with my guitar, in a room full of rapt five year olds, or promoting my business, I am hooked on playing this game. Simple service requires no such story, and is much more elegantly done in service to the moment.

It is my intention to drop my story in pursuit of simple, and present service to others.

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