Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Cultivating Gratitude at Urban Ore

New Years 2012: Last Time I was in NYC

I am traveling to New York today after almost two months of stationary, single-state existence. I am folded up in my economy airline seat, sipping cranberry juice and resisting the urge to read my novel. I am traveling for work (electric green sweater? Check!). I am traveling to see friends.

As glad as I am for the change of pace, which feels like an escape hatch from sometimes-tedious reality (everyone at work is sick, I’m out of cat litter again, the bank account is teetering dangerously close to zero), I find that I am somewhat attached to the rhythm of my life. I like California: its quirks, bizarre pockets of weather, and contradictions of personality.

Of course… that’s what I always like about a place.

An example, though.

The might 'cado
Here is a pleasing idiosyncrasy – the perceived tendency in California to add an avocado to everything. Something I am glad to incorporate onto just about any you-name-it. And since I’ve been informed that they’re good for the skin, I’ve been looking for opportunities to add them to everything, including chocolate mousse.

As we walked through the farmer’s market that weekend, I saw numerous varieties of avocado: Reed, Fuerte, even the curiously named “Bacon Avocado.” But the recipe I was working off of just showed that straightforward and familiar almost purple-green Hass avocado, which was born right here in California in the 1930s and took almost forty years to replace the Fuerte avocado as the standard. Granted – all avocados are originally from Mexico – originating somewhere around 6,000 BC and making the long journey to Southern California in 1871. But nowadays, 90 percent of all avocados eaten domestically come from California and 60 percent of all of California’s avocados come from the San Diego region. In fact, my favorite fact is that the mother tree of all California Hass Avocados was born in a backyard in La Habra Heights, California (near Los Angeles).

View to the Golden Gate from Coit Tower
I wonder how many of the total avocados produced are consumed by Californians.

But I’m headed out of town for the rest of the week. I haven’t been to New York in almost a year. Haven’t hugged these friends in months, so I’m headed towards the statue of liberty, Lena Dunham, and past internships that failed to lead to careers.

Big cities. A theme for my life for the past year: New York, Boston, Paris, San Francisco, London, Dublin. Thronging, irritating, vital cities. It is a long way from the one-stoplight town I grew up in and it’s funny how much I like them in spite of my affection for rural cow farms and swampy corners of New England. I visit my urban friends and everyone has advice on how to handle their cities:

“Never buy strawberries at the market on Saturday, buy them on Tuesday after they’ve been freshly purchased from the farm at the beginning of the week.”

“Sixth street is probably the most dangerous section of the city.”

“Avoid Hoxton unless you want to see one more up-and-coming hipster neighborhood.”

“I’d carry my pocket umbrella at all times.”

“I’d have a reusable grocery bag on me at all times.”

New Years 2013
People say these things with a tilt of their head and a flatness of tone that doesn’t brook questioning. Sentences that they’ve earned the privilege to say. These pieces of wisdom are badges of experience, even ownership. Something that makes it your city.

I would like that feeling. I can’t remember the last time I had some sense of it. More than ownership; belonging.

There are, however, small instances of that or a feeling similar to that here in 2013: the feeling of gladness in one’s own life. I have come to feel that the most precious feeling is not joy or romantic love or even insight or affection, so much as gratitude. Riding from North Berkeley to Lake Merritt this morning on my silent, white electric scooter was a quiet moment like that. An ice cold coffee in a thermos, inappropriate, white trimmed black high heels clicking to the pavement at each stoplight, and a big, hot sun that makes the pauses at intersections worth it. Gratitude wakes up the senses and lets us shrug off global warming for an instant so that we might appreciate the virtues of sunrise before we are too entrenched in our daily grind.

Belonging is the long arc of gratitude, and something that I continue to associate more with people than with place. Amid a pleasant stream of visitors, I recognize memories that will become part of what is my history. I am glad that I don’t always recognize these moments as they’re happening. I am equally grateful when I do.

Grapes of Wrath and Obama at Urban Ore
In Berkeley, there is a place called Urban Ore. It’s a second life for already-loved possessions. It is not for the timid or the casual Goodwill-shopper. There are truly acres to shop through here: entire sections dedicated to doors and their frames, a parking lot of still-usable toilets in a variety of colors, holographic Jesus placards and (literally) kitchen sinks. I go there with my friend R. Just the two of us roaming through a breezy warehouse on a slow Sunday morning (I think it was the morning of the Super bowl).

You could spend whole days trailing through photo albums of other people’s pictures. R and I spend a good fifteen minutes pretending that these are photos of our life and describing who these people are to us. We meander through the creaking shelves of books, we ramble fun-house style between various sets of French doors that open onto each other. I try on glasses and hats, pick through kitchenware and wish that there was an appropriate place in my life to hang a lifesize poster of the St. Paul’s Girl. All of these things that were once part of an old life, waiting for the next one.

Pulling it Off at Urban Ore
Urban Ore is a reassuring and drafty metaphor for those of us who are waiting for the next thing. All of us in different states of damage or repair waiting to fit perfectly into someone else’s life. Or wondering if we do.

Afterwards, we go back to her place and eat rinsed grapes out of a white-sided bowl that looks like it once belonged in her mother’s kitchen. We talk about how she used to wear bows in her hair (she still should) or how I hope that my bitter-girl humor doesn’t put her off (it doesn’t).

There are people I won’t see when I’m in New York, too. Acquaintances who have forgotten me or I’ve forgotten, people from unselected futures that ghost through the city. I’ll think of them, too. In a big enough city, there is no metric large enough to measure your unlived lives or potential regrets.

And much as it is a life that is still becoming, I suppose there are a few pieces of advice that make me belong at least to who I am, if not where I am. And these rules apply in any city:
  • Ride something with two wheels and you will better enjoy waking up early.  
  •  Encourage your friends to wear large statement bows in their hair or to get on stage at karaoke.
  • Share your favorite things with other people. There is perhaps no better way to cultivate gratitude.
  • Love fluffy cats and stop to pet every dog tethered outside your coffeeshop.
  • Add avocado to anything.