He makes me wonder what I’m blind to.
My second day here we had a love circle at 5pm in the shalah. I had no expectations, something I’ve worked hard at. I arrived fifteen minutes late because I couldn’t find the shalah—my woeful sense of direction is perhaps my worst attribute.
I slid open the wood-and-mesh door and stepped a bare foot past the threshold. It was dim inside. Late-afternoon sunlight filtered through the screens that made up three out of four walls. The palapa roof rustled occasionally from jumping squirrels and lizards. Incense burned on a short alter alongside a statue of the Virgen of Guadalupe (this is Mexico, after all). Behind the alter was a tapestry of some Hindu deity. Not Ganesh, one of the human ones. A beige-colored male, probably Krishna. Two small veladoras cast pools of flickering light.
I counted eight people, including myself. David, with whom I had been in contact, Yeshua, who was to live in the room next to me, Aaron, whom I had briefly met the day before, and four strangers. David was instructing the group that we must do 30 minutes of cleaning each morning before 9:00, calling it “karma yoga.” A white sheet of paper was circulating with a work schedule on it.
A little later, David said in his softly-accented voice, “now let’s go around and introduce ourselves. Say please your name and let’s share something we’re working on this week. So that we can all have a little compassion for what we’re going through.”
He said that he was working on letting go of control. He said, “Jeff can sometimes help me with that, when I’m working with him. Because there is not the control, haha.”
Interesting, I thought, wonder which one is Jeff.
As it turned out, Jeff was next. We were all seated on the floor but I could tell he was tall. He had a thin frame, shoulders hunched more forward than average. He had a shaved head, white skin, light eyes. He wore shorts only. I guessed he was in his mid-30s, perhaps closer to 40. Jeff took a deep breath and went into a long preemptory explanation about his struggle. Peppered with uncomfortable chuckles and gesticulations, he said something like:
“Well I guess, you know, this is hard for me to talk about. But this is the place where these feelings come up, that’s what this is for. Vulnerability is so hard and important, but I feel safe with you guys.”
He looked around the room at us and our shadows. I was pleasantly surprised by his Irish accent.
“This week I’ve been feeling lonely. This loneliness, like I’m not connected in the way I want to be. It’s hard, it’s maybe the worst feeling.”
That’s so sad, loneliness is the worst feeling… I thought. I’ve known loneliness, sometimes it’s been my only friend. For years I lived inside of it and the pain is like submersion in ice water. I felt compassion for Jeff.
Later in the week I was talking to Ava, a beautiful and kind Slovenian Libra. She is enough like me and enough unlike me to seem perfect, for now. We looked at the work schedule.
“Oh no,” she said, “Saturday it’s me, you and Jeff and he’s the chef.”
We work in a community-run restaurant. We serve vegan food, handmade, between 12:30-5:00 five days a week. The menu changes each day and the chef chooses what to make, within parameters set by David. The other two assist.
“Is he hard to work with?” I asked. In places like this, you have to straddle a fine line, sometimes more or less so depending on the person you’re talking to, between honesty and judgement. Living in this community we are to care for one another’s spirits. But the truth is the truth regardless.
“I don’t want to say anything bad about him but he doesn’t know how to cook, he doesn’t really try to learn. He comes in the morning with a basket of stuff and asks what to do with them. And he’s very slow. But everything gets done, it will be okay. Just, for me, I like to be more organized.”
Saturday arrived. Jeff and I hadn’t interacted really at all, though he had been on my mind. The loneliness, the isolation. He clearly picked up on the fact that he was no one’s favorite. Did he realize why? I’m always so curious what’s going on in people’s minds. What realities live behind their eyes is the only mystery in this world.
Most of the shift was fine. By now I was growing to love Ava and so working with her was a delight. Jeff arrived complaining that he felt sick to his stomach.
“It was the food at Plaza Libertad, I know it. Because of my craniosacral work I’m very in touch with my body so I can tell.” He said.
I don’t think that’s possible… I thought in response.
As a team, we prepared a fresh salad with mango-lime dressing, rosemary mashed potatoes, fresh-squeezed orange juice with chia seed, and lentils with zucchini, tomato, and onion. We washed the veggies, peeled, chopped, minced, seasoned, mixed, juiced, tasted, cleaned up, set up the tables, and made a pot of coffee. We prepared food for about 25 people. As far as I could tell, Jeff mainly complained and overcooked the lentils.
“Are they done yet? Can you check, Ava?” he asked at one point while stirring the pot. His bald white head was bathed in steam.
“These are done, these are way overcooked actually. Why didn’t you taste them?” Ava said, just barely an edge of irritation in her voice.
“I can’t taste them, my stomach… I can only eat bananas today.” Was the response.
Jeff was pretty obnoxious. His idea of being chef consisted of doing very little and bossing us around. People say that “bossy” is a word we only use for women and therefore it’s sexist, but Jeff was bossy. Not assertive, not take-charge, in fact he was helpless. But he was power-tripping. Any question we asked (how do you want this sliced?) he turned back on the asker (which way do you think is best?). He was thin-skinned and sensitive to any type of criticism. He ordered us to change tasks often and for no discernable reason other than the pleasure of exercising his power. I was halfway through juicing the oranges, he told me to mash the potatoes. Halfway through that, he ordered me to grind more salt. Then back to the oranges.
Granted he did say he felt sick. And if the bottom step of your pyramid is off, relational and cognitive functions are hard to keep up with. But based on the eye-rolls his name evoked in all the community, and the loneliness he professed to feel, I think he’s always obnoxious.
At the end of the shift, he made a small plate as an offering, lit some incense and told us to hold hands. He said a small prayer to no one in particular. He told us this had been his best, most enjoyable shift so far. He thanked us for our help.
I know a lot of people who plead helplessness to their troubles while doing nothing to help themselves. I’m guilty of it too, though I like to think not often. Jeff and people like this really make me wonder.