I have been wanting to write about that evening since it happened, about a month ago. For me that’s a long time, as I often feel that I have not fully lived something, until I have written about it.
But that evening, I have not been sure how to do it, how to share it well enough.
You know how it can be so challenging to tell someone a dream you’ve had? Just as fast as you form words to describe your dream, the meaning somehow skips away and laughs a little - and you are left with something that feels like a distant cousin of that intimate story.
I don’t like that feeling, and well, this is a bit like that. How am I going to form words to pass this moment on to you - the way it came to me?
By starting. I have a feeling it’s going to go over 800 words.
This took place last April, in a small Provençal village, during our last Happiness Retreat. One evening, as we strolled through the picturesque cobblestoned streets, we noticed a small chalkboard, on a wall. On it was written: “Si le hasard t’ammene, the plaisir te ramenera,” a Senegalese proverb which translates to “If chance brings you, pleasure will bring you back.” Since we had been talking at length about Pleasure, and the French people’s reverence of Pleasure, it was a wonderful opportunity to illustrate my point once more (I had told our group how a French woman will commonly stop at a bakery on her way home from work “to pleasure herself,” and you can imagine the conversations that took place during our time together, from that moment on. “Pass me the cheese so I may pleasure myself, please.”)
A few days later, as our cook canceled what was to be our last dinner at the villa due to a last minute engagement, we all piled in the car and headed down to the village to look for a restaurant where I could treat us to something delicious. Remembering the special chalkboard sign, someone suggested we go back and try to find it, that maybe it had been in front of a restaurant.
Strolling on the way there, just a few beautiful blocks away, I dreamed out loud about how sweet it would be to spend some extended quiet time in his village, maybe writing a book. Carol suggested I looked into an Airbnb, and I nodded.
Back to the little chalkboard, I noticed the front door of what did seem like a windowless restaurant. On that door, were more chalkboards, all strung together vertically. On each one of these, handwritten in white chalk was ... an Essence: Goodness, Love, Kindness, Joy. It was quite strange to see these words in French, these words that we had all been spending a week “studying” together. As I translated them to the group, they were as surprised as I was, and I decided to open the door and peek in.
One foot inside and one foot outside, and once my eyes adjusted to the intimacy of the dark room (the name of the restaurant was “La Cave”), I noticed a few small tables - maybe 3 or 4 - and a large wooden one, all set up. A couple was eating at one of the small tables, and I stepped back outside to wave everyone in.
As we entered, a tall woman appeared and kindly inquired about our presence in her sanctuary. For some reason, I felt compelled to tell her that she was waiting for us. “Do you have reservations?” she asked me in French, surprised. Feeling a bit awkward, I told her that no, we did not, and that I was kidding about her waiting for us - but could we please stay?
Within seconds, we were sitting at the large table, the table that looked just like the one I had been dreaming about for decades, the one I used to draw in my notebooks, as a teenager. A simple, strong wooden table, with benches and chairs on all sides. A table where a large family could sit and eat and laugh, and where Joy and Kindness were served at most meals.
There were seven of us that night and the table, adorned with several warm orange candles (my favorite color) embraced us comfortably, as we started to take in our surroundings.
Small, lovely personal touches everywhere, objects that felt loved and were therefore beautiful. Books, small statues of sea turtles, more chalkboards with words scribbled on them. And on one wall, on one whole wall ... something that looked almost exactly like the doors to the Center for Happiness. A big huge black surface covered with words of love, appreciation, and encouragement. The familiarity of that place started to feel both enchanting, and a bit bizarre.
As everyone discussed their choice of food (just three choices of entrées, three choices of desserts, and something described as “A Lot of Lovely Appetizers” all written on a chalkboard, of course), Carol and I put some of our French Sprinkling cards on the table so that we may give them to our hostess when she came by next.
Sylvie, as we later learned was her name, was running a full on one-woman show. She explained the food, took the orders, cooked, served, and she cleaned. AND she took the time to talk with us throughout the whole evening.
When she saw the Sprinkling cards, she turned to me, looked into my eyes and asked: “Who are you?” Followed by a quiet “You were right. I was waiting for you.”
And that’s when the magic faucet got turned on full blast.
The Lovely Appetizers were indeed plentiful, and kept arriving, in waves. Mounds of local olives, sun dried tomatoes, eggplant, prosciutto ... A delicate soup made of the leaves of radish leaves and an obvious dose of love - served in tiny cups... and more. I forget the rest, not because it was not delicious, but because my heart was starting to be on overload.
At one point early in the evening, Sylvie had told us that she was also preparing her vegan lentil soup for some very special guests who had reserved the table behind ours. She told me that these guests came to eat dinner at La Cave once a year, and that the fact that tonight was the night made perfect sense to her, because I was supposed to meet them. She said that they had just finished a long meditation, and that the Indian gentleman Medhu, was “pure love.”
A bit later, the door opened and she joyfully welcomed three French women and a beaming Indian man into her restaurant. After the usual kiss-kiss on both cheeks, she brought them over to our table and introduced me.
I should have stood up. I should have said many things.
I should have handed them my business card.
Instead, I listened to Catherine, one of the three women, and felt my heart swell to the point of threatening to overflow. Catherine was explaining to me who she was, what she did. Then who Medhu was.
You see, I have made up a story, the past couple of years, that as much as I love being in my home country, as much as my DNA recognizes its own home, the French people’s devotion to the art of complaining combined with what I perceived as their somewhat sharp edges make it so I could never actually meet my “tribe,” over there (of course, just as I type this, an obscure French song which I love just started playing over the loudspeaker of the hippy Bellingham, WA coffeeshop where I am writing. Ok, Ok, I get it). This had been a convenient story, easily validated by just walking down the street or taking the bus in Paris or the South, and I was pretty comfortable with it.
This woman telling me, as though it made perfect sense, that she works with ServiceSpace. Service freaking Space! An organization that feels as far from Provence as the moon feels to Paris. An organization started by the amazing Nipun Mehta and who is responsible for goodness avalanches such as DailyGood.org, KindSpring, Karma Kitchen and much more. Service Space who interviewed me a few years ago, and had brought so much good to my life.
I was both frozen and melted.
Not seeming to notice my turmoil, she went on to introduce me to Medhu, and to explain that Medhu worked closely with Nipun, that he had just spent 11 days with him in India. I’m pretty sure that’s when my heart determined that it needed a relief valve and caused my eyes to quietly overflow. I listened to her, and let the tears fall down my cheeks, not saying a whole lot, like some crazy woman.
Right there, in this little tiny orange glowing French cave, what I cherish the most about my work, who I aspire to become, the very people I look up to and want to dance with --- there they were.
Catherine kept going, and was now moving on the restaurant itself, and to Sylvie. She told me that once a year, for two months in the winter, Sylvie closes the restaurant, and leaves her the keys. And that during these two months she and her Service Space crew “bake fresh pastries, make delicious coffee and serve it free to whomever walks in.” The Happy Café. The Happy Café which I started last summer in my little island on the other side of the world. They do that.
By that time, I knew I had fallen into some sort of message-bearing vortex. Yes, Sylvie was waiting for us. Yes, this was all orchestrated. Yes.
How Catherine, Medhu and their group made it to their own table, I don’t quite remember. I do remember trying to explain to my dinner mates what was going on, and I am not sure I did a very effective job. But the food was great and we were all under some kind of spell.
There was more. There was the Corsican Essence-reciting song Sylvie made everyone listen to at high volume for some big minutes, leaving us no other choice but to ingest its tender message of care. There were the little hand-sewn colorful felt hearts, whom she gave each one of us. There was so much.
And then, someone at our table wanted to know her story, the story of the restaurant as well as “did she live upstairs?”
I asked her, and I translated her lovely story. I translated how she said she was “inhabited” by the restaurant, in the very house where her great grandparents made wine a long time ago. She spoke of roots, of home, of passion for one’s work. Of the occasional challenge of it all, also.
When it came to the “do you live upstairs?” question, the answer was simple, and continues to ring in my ears. She said to me: “No, I live 2 km away with my husband, and I ride my bike to work every day.” Followed by: “but upstairs, there is a room, and it’s for you when you want it.”
So there you have it. My comfortable story about the French was reduced to baguette crumbs, part of my tribe existed right there in this tiny village (and I suspect other places in France too), and there would be no need to look for an Airbnb. Not bad for an evening’s magic.
The next morning, the little turquoise felt heart was all I had to confirm that I had not dreamed this. And it was enough.
Over the next couple of days, something shifted inside of me, and is still shifting. And I know that it is too early to give it a name.
Today, I want to invite you to let life drive, as much as you can. I want to invite you to celebrate in advance the gifts that are awaiting you because the cook (dentist, teacher, student, client) have canceled their appointment with you. I want you to invite you to pre-celebrate the divine nature of a potentially bigger appointment.
May our life-shrinking stories - as convenient as they might me - be turned upside down, may we remember that we are never alone, and that our true Essence is never far from us, as is our authentic tribe.
May we be alive and ready to feel, celebrate and accept, especially when it makes our heart overflow out of our eyes.
May allow for the pleasure to bring us back, if chance initially brought us.
SCARED OF THE SACRED