Raw, adjective: 7. brutally or grossly frank: a raw portrayal of human passions.
The world is so charmingly small.
So Sunday - yesterday - I'm sitting in Sharon Meadow with my badass friend Autumn. We've just arrived in Golden Gate Park for the annual Opera in the Park concert, my long-standing favorite San Francisco tradition; we've staked out some primo territory to the left of the makeshift proscenium stage where the orchestra's been tuning up all morning, and we're laying out blankets to save space for the folks to come. The sun's flirting with coming out and staying, in between gusts of wind and churning fog.
I start pulling bottles of wine and quart bags of grapes and carefully-wrapped hunks of cheese out of my trusty wicker picnic basket. Autumn breaks out the rosé and starts making wine spritzers with club soda. We're fresh from yoga and ready to chill for a few minutes before folks start rolling up. And then, out of nowhere, there's a tap at my shoulder, and I look up to see a warm open-faced woman leaning toward me, pink iPhone in hand.
She says, shyly: "Excuse me, I think I have a picture of you on my phone. Is this you?"
And, sho' nuff, I'll be damned - there I am staring out from her iPhone, well, that is, a year-old version of me with bobbed hair and purple print sundress, bundt cake and fake flowers in hand. Turns out this woman - Michelle, I quickly learn - had been on the adjacent blanket, right in front of the stage, at last year's sea of thousands at Opera in the Park, and we'd chatted, made friends, shared some cake, you know, the kinds of easy nice interactions you have with fellow arts lovers when you share outdoorsy live music traditions like this one.
So here we are, one year later to the day, and Michelle and her husband Stacy just happen to have set their blanket up on the opposite side of the stage this year, much further back, and I've happened to arrive much later than my usual 10 or 11 am, owing to a juicy yoga class that kept me sweaty and not even home to shower til 11:30, and the two of us and our respective soireés have once again set up next to one another.
Turns out my new-old friend Michelle and her husband Stacy are from Chico, and they come here every year for Opera in the Park, as have I for the last seven years, even in those first few years when it was usually just me and a book and a bottle and the Chron, because I didn't know anyone in the City who'd want to take in hours of opera on a Sunday afternoon that happened to also be the onset of the nascent NFL season. But here in a sea of 15,000 people, we'd managed to find one another again, and Michelle gathered from my sundress and basket that it was the same picnicking cake-maker from last year, and she came over to say hello.
So we decided that the universe most definitely wants us to be friends, and traded digits, and made plans to see one another next year, same time, same place.
And I think the whole beauty of the story, this little ten-minute interchange that left me smiling and content even before the majority of my picnicking companions had arrived or the music had even begun, was that it reaffirmed that sweet theme that I've seen sung over and over in my bhakti baking practice these several years: the reality that a stupid cake, a silly over-frosted, tackily-decorated bundt cake, can soften strangers, bring them together, give them something to connect about, provide a reason for remembering, for noticing, for paying attention.
Michelle told me she'd said to her husband that very morning in the car: "Oh, I wonder if we'll see that cake girl in the sundress from last year?" And then not hours later, there I was settling in next to her.
The world can indeed be impersonal and huge and indifferent and overwhelming and magnificent in its existentialist loneliness at times, to be sure; especially in urbanity, where anonymity and purported isolation can give us implicit permission to ignore one another's humanity, we can so often feel there is so little hope for connection, that we live in a swarm of comings and goings, that we just look past one another on the sidewalk, that we're all so caught up in "getting our own" that we trample the people in our way. It can be easy to forget, in the midst of chaos and war, hatred and bigotry, and this weekend's anniversary of an atrocity committed in a spirit of fear and anger, that at the end of the day, we're just people, everyone's quite human, and that when you take the time to see the humanity in one another, to remember the faces, to pay attention to the sundress or the blanket or the picnic basket or the Sierra Nevada fleece keeping Stacy warm on a cold gusty foggy afternoon in the park, connection can be quite simple.
Rusty always reminds us to "shrink the world, one person at a time" after the typical Namastes have been spoken at the close of a yoga class. Instead of chatting it up with your buddies from the clique, you reach out to the stranger next to you and just say hello, whasssup, "why are you here?", because you never know if that person might be your next best friend. In that same kind of shrinking-the-world spirit, I was touched, heartened, lifted by yesterday's little moment with Michelle. It reminded me of the power of paying attention, the potential for softening to strangers, the ease with which we can open to one another and find tenderness there, instead of living in bodies wracked with tension and fear and distrust.
Yoga teaches us to be flexible, yes, in very physical ways; it stretches the hamstrings and loosens the shoulders, opens the hips and softens the jaw, if we let it; but it also teaches us to be flexible in less tangible ways: to be fearless about speaking to the stranger on the blanket next to us, to approach without hesitation the lonely-looking man sitting by himself with the Chron and to offer him a glass of wine or a slice of cheese, to see the Krishna-Buddha-Jesus-Gaia in everyone, everything, with whom we come into contact.
For me, in my baking and the bhakti seva that's come out of that particular practice, I've seen it happen so easily, so softly, so naturally, that it continues to inspire me to keep baking. But the silly cakes are really just a vehicle for something that can happen without the aid of buttercream or bundt carriers. We can learn from the doing, and see the opening, and carry that on in little ways, in the eye contact we make with the grocery store clerk who probably feels invisible much of the day, in the authentic thanks we offer the mail carrier for that long-awaited package just delivered, in the asking the crying stranger on the sidewalk, kindly, tenderly: what do you need?
It's really quite simple, and beautiful, when you let it be. Thanks to Michelle, and Stacy, and the SF Opera, and Golden Gate Park, and my favorite Alice in Wonderland picnic sundress, and last year's ridiculous margarita bundt cake, for reminding me so.