I Sought Spiritual Insight At A Harvard Square Café


This story is the third installment of a series. For clarity’s sake, I’ll repeat much of the information from the first installment, since it still applies. The story is completely different from the previous ones, but the same exercise inspired it.

I’ve been playing with an idea: that imagining ourselves acting in bold, cathartic, and even shocking ways can be just as healing as actually pulling the behavior off. In fact, it’s safer; you reap the benefits without subjecting yourself to the messy awkwardness of real people reacting to your actions. Recently, I published a short story on Hevria with this theme — I fought back, finally, against some online bullying I’d experienced, in a hilarious but ultimately healing way. Writing about and sharing this fantasy felt even better than merely imagining it. I had the sense that I’d taken control over the original problem, transformed it into my own playground for my mind and my soul.

So I had a brainstorm: why not do it again, many times, as a kind of psychological and even spiritual exercise? I could respond to difficult situations in wild and wonderful ways, in my mind and on the page. I wrote the short story below in that spirit. Everything there is fictional; nothing happened as described. The narrator is me, more or less, but no other character corresponds to any particular real-life person.

This time, seething with disappointment over my spiritual quest, I brought my questions to a Harvard Square café. My idea felt radical: maybe a simple afternoon or evening at a café would bring more insight than running around to alleged experts, mediums, and mystics. It worked, I think, though mostly not in the ways I’d imagined in advance.

Perhaps the most important thing: I’ve been laughing at the scenarios that appeared in my mind. They create lightness where sadness and tension once reigned. I haven’t worked miracles: sadness and tension still poke out when I think about the “real life” situations that inspired this fictional tale. But I’ve moved it all towards humor, playfulness, and a sincere attempt to grow. I hope you enjoy it. Maybe you’ll feel inspired to try this exercise yourself. I recommend it with great enthusiasm.

Part 1: The Idea

I walked along the Charles River, feeling angry about my failed adventures, travels, and meetings. A self-described mystic in Central Square, not far from my Cambridge, MA apartment, had just charged me $100 to tell me that, one day, I would find my calling.

“What do you mean by that?” I asked.

“It’s kind of hazy,” she explained. She wore a long, satiny robe with a royal blue base and yellow and pink flowers — and I didn’t want to think about how old she might be because age, lately, depresses me. Her fine hair was mostly brown, but I could see gray streaks when I looked closely. Every once in a while, she’d stick her pointer finger into her mouth and suck on it. We’d shaken hands earlier. I didn’t have any hand sanitizer. I tried not to gag.

“Can you get more specific about the calling? Like, is it a social thing, professional, or both? Does it involve creativity, or writing, or speaking, or… something else?”

The mystic rested her chin on a fist and seemed to stare at something that I was unable to see: some point of insight that was inaccessible to me. Finally, she said, “I’m not sure, but when you realize, you’ll feel it. You’ll know it. Of course… you’ll have to be in the right place for that to happen. You know, the right mental space.”

“Any suggestions on how I might make that happen?”

“Just be open, Love. Just be open. And, of course, you can always come back here for some more appointments. I find that I can help people stay in attunement and maintain the right energy. Come see me; I’m pretty much always here.”

I drew my knapsack closer to me, and I could feel the hump where my wallet lived. My mystical powers are few, but, I’m telling you, my wallet sent me a message, a small but dense mass of energy filled with a clear idea: “Don’t go back to her, you idiot. It’s bad enough that you’re here now. Chalk it up as an honest mistake that you can laugh about — and maybe even write about — but stay away from now on.”

This wasn’t the first time, of course. Afterlife conferences, workshops on out-of-body experiences, visits to communities filled with self-described mediums… my spiritual quest had gotten me around. I didn’t regret it. I’d met some fascinating people, visited places I’d never have seen otherwise, and even, occasionally, gotten glimpses that could have been mystical.

But it all involved considerable effort and noteworthy expense. And I still had no answers. Potential insight… sure. Material to wind around my mind and enrich my thoughts: yes. Glimpses of possibilities that could offer me peace as I explore my questions about death and what might happen to our conscious selves afterwards… absolutely. But nothing concrete. And that was disappointing. I’d put so much in, and received comparatively little in return.

I wondered if I should try a new approach. So many people I knew seemed to experience great rewards with very little effort or expense. They’d happen on fabulous research grants and wonderful trips that others paid for. With virtually no planning, they’d find themselves on a plane to Iceland, Rome, or Bali, ready to plaster their social media accounts with pictures of mind-expanding moments. And I trudge along with… not nothing, certainly. But nothing commensurate with the care I put in, the exhausting hopes and fantasies I pour into every moment of my quest.

Though it’s completely counter to my nature, I began to wonder if I should try something easy. Rather than torturing myself over elaborate plans that yield nothing but more questions, I could just pop over somewhere and be all casual and light-hearted about it. You know, like those casual, light-hearted people I was always seeing: the ones who just kind of float around and achieve all kinds of wonders with ease. I could hang out somewhere right nearby, and maybe, with the right attitude and openness, I’d receive some worthy answers, or some peace, or even just a moment of true, pure joy.

Of course, I hung out in easy places all the time, and nothing amazing ever seemed to result. Right now, I was walking along the Charles River, thinking that one of the sunbathing students or slow-jogging middle-aged women might just blaze a path towards something amazing — some incredible connection or new way of thinking. But, as usual, nothing much was happening.

A 30ish guy strolled by with his small brown poodle: the two were kind of jumping together, looking elated. I had a hunch that the guy had come upon some new form of freedom. Maybe he’d just finished his dissertation (around here, most 30ish people seem to be completing some kind of dissertation). Maybe he was a math genius who had finished his dissertation long ago, and had already been teaching at MIT long enough to have earned a sabbatical year (the really breathtaking Cambridge 30-year-olds are more in that stage of existence).

I could have called the guy over and commented on the joy I sensed within him, but I decided against it. It would have seemed too friendly. It’s so odd how many people come right into the boundaries of our lives — so close to influencing us and maybe even touching us deeply — but it’s usually inappropriate to reach out. If there’s no known prior connection, the person is not within our orbit, not appropriate to flag down unless something major is happening: some reason we have to lead the person towards safety, stop them from leaving something behind, or some such.

Maybe this boundary was exactly the thing I needed to transcend. Maybe transcending it in some easy, accessible way would eliminate the dense walls that seemed to appear over and over, wherever I walked. All these so-close-yet-so-far people wandering all over Cambridge… maybe some of them could offer the answers I yearned for.

Part 2: The Execution

When the solution hit me, I laughed because it was so simple, so obvious. Why had I never done this before? True, it could be embarrassing, but I embarrassed myself every day, holding up lines because I can’t find my frequent buyer card, getting overwrought in stores when I can’t decide what to buy, running into people I know right when I’m in a frenzy over something… I could elaborate for hours.

What if someone I knew did see me at a café, holding up a big sign with a message scrawled in messy handwriting? What if a whole group of my students came in as I was sitting there awkwardly, holding a sign that no one responded to?

It could happen, and, one day, it probably would. If it did, I’d sure have a hilarious story to tell. Nothing wrong with that.

So I headed into a local art store, bought materials to make some posters, and made a sign that said: “Tell me about your deepest beliefs and spiritual hunches. Tell me who you are, and who you think you’ll be in 10 years, in 20 years, in 500 years. All ideas are good.” It took 5 tries for me to create a semi-decent-looking sign, but that was OK.

Though I felt a bit ridiculous riding down my building’s public elevator and walking through our lobby with the sign, no one reacted. This is Cambridge, after all. My sign barely registered on the weirdness scale. I’ve seen tall, hefty men dressed in full Roman Catholic nuns’ garb, wolfing down sandwiches at a nearby café. No one reacted to them. Maybe they weren’t men after all. Phenotype only goes so far when it comes to gender, as any true Cantabrigian would agree. Maybe the outfits in fact had nothing to do with nuns, but instead were a signal to like-minded literary theorists. Maybe they were philosophers trying to get people to think about the multiverse, or physicists making a joke about the space-time continuum.

No one could say for sure, so we all remained quiet. Entertained and inspired by this memory, I headed towards Harvard Square’s Crema Café, holding my sign high, feeling silly but not utterly shameful.

I figured I’d start my adventure before I even arrived at the café. I walked with such purpose I almost felt I was marching, waving my sign above my head. In my fantasy, cool people of various kinds would stop me as I walked, ready to answer my questions. They’d tell me how grateful they were that I had moved past the sanitized falseness of everyday life, how much they craved the chance to discuss deep ideas and unvarnished feelings.

But no one did. A few people looked my way and chuckled, but, when I tried to catch their eyes, they headed off quickly, letting me know that they had places to be. I was surprised at just how disappointed I felt, but I let it go. I, too, raced around when I had to reach a destination by a certain time. My crazy experiment couldn’t alter the harried nature of so many lives.

The weather was clear and a perfect temperature — the kind of day when searching souls like me can’t decide whether it’s too hot or too cold, whether to put on our jackets or take off our outside shirts… and then realize we feel just right as is. It was sad, in a way, that so few people were hanging out and enjoying the perfection. Most seemed to be hurrying somewhere important. Since I don’t teach on Wednesday afternoons and am not the type to make a million appointments during my free time, I soaked in my rare flexibility.

At one point, I stood still, smiling, hoping to attract attention and conversation. I was across from Harvard Yard, by some tables where people chatted or played chess. A woman with long blonde hair and a silky green scarf jabbed her small son on the shoulder: they both looked at me and laughed. “You want to know who I am? I am one serious person,” she said.

“Well, that’s fascinating. Tell me more.” I think I seemed a bit too eager, because she and her son giggled at each other and headed off towards the subway. A few other people looked my way and seemed to snicker at my sign. I felt a wave of shame. I was like that sad kindergarten kid who brings all kinds of fun toys to lunch, hoping bunches of people will sit and play with her, but winds up alone because the other kids think she’s entirely too strange, and the toys just make it all worse.

I had a hunch that people would be less frenetic inside the café. They’d be sitting still, not on the move. If you’re hanging out in a café, most likely you have a little time to sip, enjoy a snack, and maybe even chat with an eccentric but perfectly clean woman holding a sign.

Before long, I reached Crema, right in the heart of Harvard Square. It was around 4 p.m., soon after the nearby universities had started fall term classes. As usual, Crema was crowded both upstairs and down, so my first task was scoring a prime seat. I headed upstairs with my sign and stood there, waiting for someone to leave. I thought maybe someone would respond to my sign and talk to me while I waited, but no one did. People seemed even more protective of their seats than usual, pushing their mugs and computers to the other side of the table to stop me from sitting across from them.

After about 10 minutes, a college-aged guy wearing a Georgetown sweatshirt stood up and started gathering his stuff, and I raced over to claim the table. I figured I’d use the sign to save my seat while I ordered since I couldn’t imagine anyone wanting to steal it. I looked at the woman at the table right next to mine and asked if she could keep an eye on my seat. She looked at my sign and gave me a bleary glance. “I’d honestly prefer if someone else sat here and you had to move,” she managed to tell me through waves that funneled such thoughts through the air.

I would have exulted in my newfound psychic ability, but I was too busy feeling hurt. This sign thing felt unlikely to lead anywhere promising, but I couldn’t give up now. I went downstairs and got myself a pistachio biscotti and mint iced tea. This seemed perfect for the moment: a small treat that wouldn’t take too long to eat if people started showing an interest in my sign.

When I arrived back at my table, an unkempt guy with long graying hair, bloodshot blue eyes, and a grimy white T-shirt was sitting there. “Hey, I’m sure you didn’t realize, but I was sitting here,” I said. I picked up an odor from him: a mix of dirty body and unwashed clothes. I hoped he’d sit far away from me so I wouldn’t smell him as I tried to enjoy my snack.

He pointed to my sign and said: “I thought you wanted to talk to people about themselves.”

I was mortified. He was right. Nothing in my original plans for this experiment stipulated that my conversation partners had to be clean or physically appealing. Where had I gotten the idea that this man was somehow unacceptable?

“Yes. Yes, you’re right. I was just in a weird mood since I’d just gotten back with my stuff after ordering.” I looked around and saw that several people were watching us. I’d finally managed to attract some positive curiosity.

The man leaned across the table until his face practically touched mine. I picked up the plate with the biscotti and put it on my lap because I didn’t want him to breathe on it.

Then he said: “You asked about deepest beliefs and spiritual hunches. Well, I think there are beings all around us, trying to talk to us. Not even talk, exactly, but, you know, communicate.”

“You mean like we’re doing now?”

The guy stroked his beard and laughed hard for at least a minute. Several people had stopped their conversations so they could look at us. We were putting on a show. It was what I had hoped for, but, now that it had happened, I wasn’t sure I was happy about it.

“No, not like that, because they’re not humans.”

“So you’re talking about animals then?”

“No. I’m talking about intelligences from different dimensions. They communicate through radio waves and other sources that we don’t even know about.” He started staring above my head and moving his hands very deliberately, kind of like he was communicating through hand signals.

“You’re communicating with them now?” I asked.

“No, but I’m in tune with them now. I move my hands sometimes when that happens: it’s just a reaction I have for some reason.” He slid back away from the table, and I felt relieved to have some distance between us. “Anyhow, I gotta go, and I sense that you agree. But think about it. And don’t judge.”

When he left, I felt an emptiness, like I would miss him, or like I didn’t get enough information. But I was also pleased with what I did hear. If intelligences from different dimensions can communicate with us, who knows what else might be possible? That throws our usual assumptions upside down and inside out.

I put my biscotti back on the table, ready to dig in, but before I could focus too much on it, a college-aged South Asian woman wearing shorts, flip flops, and a Red Sox cap pointed to my sign and asked if she could join me.

“Yes, of course. I’d love to hear your thoughts.”

She slid into the chair across from me. “I’ll be writing about this for my English class. Is that OK?”

“Definitely.” Part of me was very pleased that my little experiment would get memorialized in an English class, but I was also a bit nervous. What if she read her paper out loud to everyone in the class, and someone there had seen me with this sign? Maybe people would bond over it, saying: “Right, that woman with the sign just oozed discomfort, but she sure was worth a laugh.” Oy vey.

“So my English professor wants us to write an essay on the topic: ‘Who am I?’ And I’ve been thinking about it all day. Soon I’ll have to start writing. And… I hadn’t even thought about who I’d be in the future until I saw your sign. And then I was like: Right! That’s part of who I am too. Just not a part I’ve ever considered.” She smiled and took a sip of her iced coffee. I realized I hadn’t even tried my biscotti or drink yet, and took a small sip of iced tea.

I was riveted by her focus on the future… particularly the far future, when her current life was overwhelmingly likely to have ended. “So… where do you think you’ll be in 500 years? Strange question I know. Far, far into the future.”

She rested her chin on her hands and thought. Minutes went by and she said nothing. I felt intrigued and excited, and a bit nervous for some reason… as if something important rode on her response. Maybe this college student could offer what scores of alleged mystics and mediums could not.

Finally, she said, “This is so embarrassing, but the only thing I can say for sure is that it will all be very blue. My favorite blue: blue like the sky on a clear, late-summer evening. Just big and blue and… infinite, I guess, but I can’t even say what that means right now.”

I wanted to ask more, but she looked at her watch and told me she was meeting someone for dinner and had to leave. “Thanks so much, though: this was awesome,” she called as she headed towards the stairs.

So, once again, I had everything and nothing… something amazing but nothing definitive. But somehow, this was more magical than setting off with specific intent, prepared to pay a professional for her skills. Here, I had no particular expectations, so whatever came was a bonus, a freebee, an unexpected gift.

I ate the biscotti, drank the tea, and realized I was still hungry. Leaving the sign to save my seat again, I headed downstairs for some spinach and mushroom quiche. This time, the people sitting near me were happy to save my seat. The man next to me actually straightened my sign for me when it sagged after I stood up. I was growing into this role. People were accepting me within it.

The quiche tasted special to me. The vegetables were fresh, the egg soft and custard-like. I ate slowly, savoring every bite. It felt like the first food of a new era, arousing honed sensitivity to taste and pleasure. On one level, the idea felt so hokey I almost laughed at myself. On a deeper level, I knew it was valid, though I couldn’t explain how or why.

It was now early evening and the crowd had thinned. Many saw Crema as an afternoon work space, not a dinner destination. There was room at the big communal table, and I decided to move there with my poster. Maybe, if I was very lucky, I could spark a group discussion about my questions, kind of like a class on the individual self and soul throughout time.

I settled in and held my poster up. A 40ish couple whose biking helmets took up half their table glanced at me and whispered to each other. The man pointed at my sign and the woman giggled. OK, so perfection hadn’t suddenly bloomed. I had to expect something like this at some point, right?

A chic-looking woman in a tight black leather jacket joined me at the big table. She peered over at my sign and asked me about it. “It’s a little experiment for my spiritual quest,” I told her.

She nodded and appeared to read the sign carefully. A few of her friends joined her: more casual types, in jeans and T-shirts, but still neatly dressed. We all wound up talking about the sign. I told them: “I hope it will bring some insight into my deepest questions. You know, on the theory that random people in cafés might just offer some of the best wisdom around. Maybe all the planning and stuff I do is counterproductive sometimes, and I should trust that the universe will come through with some interesting answers.”

We got into a calm, comfortable conversation. I didn’t think much about it: it just kind of happened. The women were all teachers at a nearby private high school. We talked about teaching, at the high school and the college level. One of the women — an intense type who had an ever-so-slight deaf accent (I wouldn’t call it an impairment since I understood her easily and she spoke very comfortably) — said she’d like to try this kind of poster with her writing students, to see what they’d come up with.

We speculated about how various kinds of students might react to this assignment, and then the women had to leave. As we said goodbye, I felt content and unselfconscious. Weirdly, I’d almost forgotten about the sign, even though we had discussed it. I just kind of slid through this interaction in a free, pure way: uncalculated, unscripted, unplanned. I had no palpable motive beyond moving through time and seeing what came next. It felt like the life I should be having: the real, simple existence my soul had been craving.

Then my back stiffened and I bolted up in my chair. What an opportunity I had missed! Those women were so open and friendly. I could have pushed them to consider the sign’s questions, and they would have gone along in a very jovial way. But, instead, I just sat there chit-chatting… and now I had no real answers.

Who knew what gems they might have come out with if I had pushed them. The woman with the hearing problem seemed like such a sensitive soul. Her chic friend too: she struck me as one of those chic people who, beneath it all, feel a great weight. The chicness felt like a deliberate distraction from painful questions. She considered each discussion topic with such care, nodding vigorously in response to people’s words to show that she was involved.

The women were now downstairs, and they’d stopped at the counter to order something to go. I watched them, and they saw me and waved. All four of them. I didn’t even know them except for our short conversation, and here they were, waving with such genuineness.

I waved back, and it was so strange: I felt a slight tug of infinity as I did. Maybe I was sensing the non-human personalities my first conversation partner had discussed. Or maybe the fabulous blueness the college student mentioned had somehow gotten into my consciousness. I couldn’t be sure of anything, but I did know this: If I had pushed those women to complete my exercise with the sign, we wouldn’t have had such a tranquil, happy time. Whatever answers I would have received would not have been actual answers. Everyone would have been polite, but wasn’t this so much better than politeness?

For once, I slid into life, and then, just for a moment, I sensed infinity. It wasn’t an answer, but maybe it was the beginning.

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