From The Under 35 Project: “Cushion and Apron — On Meditation and Waitressing”

Here’s the latest from The Under 35 Project by Sarah Fox, on the junction between meditation and waitressing.

Sarah Fox
5 October 2012
Photo by Tim Wright

On a quiet night in the restaurant, I leaned on the servers’ side of the kitchen window to let the heat from the lamp warm my face and hands, then flipped to a fresh page in my orderpad and scribbled.

“Its hard to see the poetry in this anymore.”

Maybe it seems strange, but there have been times when observing the patterns of restaurants brought me some satisfaction. The nights when every table in my section ordered an ice tea and a lemonade, when every child requested an apple juice and every woman ordered the portabella and I wondered about the possibility of some underlying stream of universal human consciousness. There have been days when I served people their fries and beers and thought about desire and satisfaction and the temporary solace of food, watching it evaporate as the crumbs went cold. There have been moments when being invisible to the people I waited on made me privy to fascinating moments of human nature and tiny poems of society. Marital strife laid bare, eating disorders lurking under napkins, couples on dates that spoke nary a word, but spent all their time pushing buttons on their phones. Declarations of independence made over diet cokes and tears falling on ice cream sundaes.

All I see lately is human smallness. All I hear is demands. All I witness is monotony. There isn’t any poetry in my perspective, just tiredness.  If my mind is active the boredom of waitressing becomes unbearable, so I spend the first three hours of my shift slowing my thoughts down, transitioning into worker bee mind, and the last five hours slogging, numb.  I get home and sit on the couch at one am and wait for a creative thought to resurge, because it is the hour when they have always visited me, but things are numb. Which is a blessing, I guess, cause I am hungry for sleep these days.

I took some time off work this past weekend. Let go of the three hundred or so I knew I’d make in cash from Friday dinner and Saturday lunch. Let go of worrying about my savings fund for my upcoming maternity leave. Folded up my apron. And went off to sit on a cushion.

There were moments at the beginning when I pettily wished I’d skipped the meditation weekend and used the time off to do something less demanding. Watching movies, perhaps. Walking to the beach with my dog and my husband. Baking something sweet. Sleeping in in the morning. Moments when I thought about the way I try to empty my mind of thoughts at work so I can be a Good Waitress, and here I was seeking to quiet my mind on a cushion, when I could have been curled on the couch, sipping tea and trying to spark creative thought with a pen and a blank journal page. There were moments sitting there on the cushion, when I remembered vividly the physical pain of my last meditation weekend, when my shoulders rebelled at the sitting and knotted into a ball of sharp ache that took over all of my attention.

But they were only moments. In between them, I found myself sitting in a new, open space. In that new, open space, my mind still ran wild. I thought about laundry, food, writing, love, and the tiny person living in my abdomen. I also paid attention to my body, and shifted my sitting position before the ache had a chance to settle in. I followed my breath. I followed the person in front of me during walking meditation, and I returned to the cushion to attend to my body, and follow my breath. I thought about thousands of things, inconsequential and pivotal, and labeled each item “Thinking.” Liberated my gerbil-wheel mind from the responsibility of dealing with the pivotal things. Smiled at the democracy of Thinking, in which laundry and home-buying and croissants and parenthood and birds flying past are of equal significance. No matter how profound or inane or life-altering or petty the thought, it is only that: a thought.  A construction of my habitual mind. I felt like I was following myself through a park laced with trails, and noticing the ones I favored every day, trails I stepped into without realizing I was choosing them.

The meditation instructor talked about cocoons, the way we enfold ourselves in habit to protect ourselves from being fully present. How we keep our talents and our deepest kindnesses locked away inside those cocoons, because bringing them out honestly into the sunlight makes us vulnerable in the present moment, and we would just as soon save vulnerability for some other time.

It occurred to me that waitressing is one of my cocoons. A safe place to make money without laying bare my desire to be creative professionally. There is no chance of failing at being a Writer if I forestall any chance of failure by never trying, by claiming “its impossible to make a living that way, and waitressing pays the bills.” It’s my smelly little refuge from the creative job market, a source of professional-level income that asks nothing of my intelligence. I claim to hate the way customers don’t see the person behind the apron, but on some level, I crave that anonymity, because its much safer than writing something and sticking my name on it.

Sunday afternoon, I left the meditation weekend early. Somewhere else, across the country, two football teams were going to duke it out for an athletic title, and I was needed at work 2 hours early to serve game-watchers massive plates of hotwings and pitchers of beer. I’d tried to get the shift covered, but no one was able, and so a week prior to the meditation workshop, I resigned myself to leaving the cushion prematurely, and picking up the order pad once more. Resigned myself to combining two activities I’d come to resent tremendously: waitressing and professional football. As the weekend neared though, I began to see the humor in my scheduling conflict. I could virtually hear long-gone Buddhist teachers chuckling at my predicament.

I talked about my early departure, and my fears connected to it, with my meditation discussion group on Sunday morning. We all acknowledged how difficult it can be to take this quieter mind back into the big world, away from the safety and structure and respectful quiet of the meditation center. When the time came, I said goodbye to friends, and Ryan and I drove back to West Seattle. I put my apron on, and I waited on a group of perfectly kind people who were there to watch the game. Yes, they shouted and cheered. Yes, they demanded beers without always making eye contact, and asked me questions while leaning out to look around my body to see the television. When my anger surged, I noticed it. When I let it go, I noticed it going. Many people said please and thank you, and when I felt kind toward them, I noticed it. When the game ended, they left. My section emptied, and I cleaned up and went home.

Nothing profound has changed in my life because I went to meditation. But I am practicing.

On the cushion, and in the apron.

Sarah Fox

Sarah Fox calls herself an overeducated waitress. She has a master’s degree in history and folklore, and lives in Seattle with her husband, their two-year-old son and their two giant dogs. She slings food for a living, cultivates a sprawling vegetable garden, and participates in the Seattle sangha, and is currently working on a book-length manuscript exploring ordinary people’s stories of nuclear contamination in the American West.