I don’t remember why I first went in—it’s not like I have a thing for bagels. But I entered the shop into a long line and began the difficult process of not being a “bagel regular” and having no idea how I wanted to eat these plump round rolls with a belly button. (NYC bagel etiquette #1: Never call a bagel a roll.)
“Next!...Next!” The whole shop was a wave constantly shifting forward as customers shouted their orders à la carte to the men behind the counter. Dishes of flavored spreads are in tinted pastels. Would I like it toasted? …um, yeah? Three sets of arms fly through spatulas, grills, and toasters true to the noise and speed of a New York minute. I hear someone behind me request a plain. You have a plethora of options and you order a plain??…with regular cream cheese…?! Siddhartha Gautama grew up as a prince with wealth and plenty.
When I make it to the register, there it is, miraculously waiting for me, gift-wrapped and slid into a paper bag with shoved-in napkins. I’m spit out the door in under five minutes and five dollars. Made-on-site, I’m eating a morsel of NYC tradition and history. I’m gonna let you make my day dear bagel. At an outdoor table nearby I relished this brilliant orchestration of breakfast. The sun was shining and the event kept coming back to me.
On my next trip, I’m ordering for two and need to make a close train. My blood sugar is low and blood pressure high. My bag is extra heavy and forehead dewy. I can’t make a decision. I hate making decisions. Nothing sounds appealing. What a chore! It’s so clamorously LOUD in here. “NEXT!!” Oh! I spill out an unconfident order and anxiously twiddle my thumbs—at whatever pace the line is moving, it’s not moving fast enough. The cash register dings and I realize nothing aboutthe bagel shop has changed, but the experience I was hoping to repeat had vanished.
The third time, it’s the quietest I’ve seen the shop and there’s no line. A woman in white polka dots orders a large coffee with skim. Her pleasant expression is framed in air-drying ringlets. She’s bent over the counter while the cashier explains that she’s handing her one single, and then one five. She’s blind. I watch her leave with her hunched back reaching down to the harness her dog wears because it’s one that sees the streets.
Just outside, a woman with a healthy set of white hairs poking from her chin is clothed in an oversized tee that reaches her knees. A caretaker is nearby and her eyes don’t look like they’re registering anything. Does she ever get outdoors? Siddhartha steps out of the palace and sees illness and age for the first time. Or maybe he stubs his toe on the daily newspaper. Difficult realities can be a necessary attitude check. I sit underneath a park umbrella thinking.
So I had a mystical and humbling set of experiences sponsored by a bagel shop: a high, a low, and a dose of hardship. I learned a few lessons from my three sandwiches, but what happens the hundredth time I go? (Whoa—I don’t want to think about eating that many bagels!) But how do I sit for the thousandth time on a meditation cushion? Or always walk the same path to work or pick up a fork to yet another meal? We endlessly rise to another twenty-four hours of day separated by the concepts of months and years.
Yoga to me is more about the relationship and routine than about what’s being practiced. The material doesn’t change, yet we approach it in different ways and with different levels of education. I’ve heard Marianne Williamson describe a miracle as “a shift in perception.” We all have our own bagel shops, mats, and routines where we can compare our perspectives. Our practice is in understanding how we perceive and in coming back to the awareness of that fluctuation. What is the constant underneath? This can be pulling teeth or randomly easy.
I can have a euphoric sense of oneness and think that I’ve got “it,” but I know how often the cash register DINGS! me back awake, and I feel shameful about how I project my negative moods upon those close to me. The classic Buddha story covers ignorance and avoiding, or overly seeking, until there’s acceptance. I repeat this pathway on an hourly, if not moment-by-moment basis. If you really pay attention and are curious and observant in your routines, I think you’ll find the same lost and found repetitions. Life is all of these.
I don’t know the ultimate key. I don’t think there is one. All I can tell you are the times that I’ve been humbled and how many times I’m willing to try again. I can tell you that I prefer a bagel with the right “pull” and inner consistency, but how it tastes will depend on my perspective. And it won’t always be the latter half of bittersweet. Can I have two eyes, a slice of reality, and a spread of gratefulness on a WHOLE wheat EVERYTHING.
Photo by Callie Ritter