It’s the wee hours of 2018, and resolutions are shiny enough to still believe in. This year, two of my top goals are to quit doing stuff and to be more listless.
Sometime around 2005, relaxing became completely exotic, an anti-pastime, and I was a rank amateur. It knocks me out when I hear someone say, “I’m just going to take it easy.”
What do they mean? Take what easy? Life? And which part? The part where you could die without having finished your thank-you notes?
To take it easy I imagine you have to stop thinking and doing, and generally I’m doing more than a human should—or I’ve shut down entirely, leading people to snap their fingers in my face to ask where I just went. I’m pretty sure I know how I got like this but sometimes worry I can’t change it.
Living in New York City has not helped. I find that I slow down the most when I’m closer to the Indian Ocean. In Africa I can actually take a nap, which has happened in the United States maybe three times this millennium. My 11-year-old daughter was born in Ethiopia and has a respect for relaxation built into her DNA. She can luxuriate in a task and not feel as if she’s missing something somewhere else; she’ll spend an hour lovingly arranging crackers on a tray. “Why isn’t my brother more open to the idea of the cheese plate?” she’ll muse, gazing at the layers of Gruyère she’s made into sculpture. She goes after life with an amazing lack of panic, and it makes sense that one of the rituals of her birthplace, the coffee ceremony, focuses on how rather than what.
The last day of my first trip to Ethiopia, I was invited to a coffee ceremony. The orphanage where we stayed was on a backstreet of a backstreet in Addis Ababa, and you entered through a courtyard of maybe 300 square feet, surrounded by a 10-foot brick wall with rusty barbed wire tangled atop it.
Walking into the meeting space, my son held my hand tightly. I had my daughter on my hip. There was a lovely young woman in the center of the room, seated on a low stool. In front of her were hot coals, and I directed my boy around them as he headed for the toys and books sparsely placed on shelves around the edges of the room. I took my seat, and my daughter reached out and clutched my ponytail. I happily made small talk about my daughter while glancing around and wondering where and when the actual ceremony would happen.
The woman who sat by the coals deftly rearranged her scarf with one hand as the other shook a heavy iron pot with coffee beans. A woven bowl filled with popcorn was on the floor at her feet, and she shook the pot over the coals; the sound of the beans matched the percussion of the rain falling outside. Another woman took some of the popcorn and dropped it into a well she’d made from the front of her sweater, and they chatted in Amharic. I talked with the friends I’d made that week, and the smell of coffee roasting gradually emptied into the room.
It’s believed that coffee was discovered in Ethiopia; thus this ceremony is sacred. The beans are ground by hand and passed through a sieve, but before that, they are carried around the room for all to inhale that intoxicating smell. Then the coffee is brewed in a jebena, or roasting pot. The first roasting, or abol, is the purest, and if you enter a home on the abol, it’s auspicious, a good sign for your day.
On that day of my first ceremony, I still wondered when the show was going to start. When they brought out some ambasha, or sweet bread, I figured this must be it, because cake pretty much equals ceremony. They asked me to slice it in honor of my daughter, and I was hit with emotion for the umpteenth time that week from the phrase “in honor of your daughter.” As an infectious sort of tranquility descended on the room, I had my first suspicion that maybe it was not about cake.
We stayed in that room long enough for the calm within it to seep into me, and for a little girl in dusty patent-leather shoes to find her way to my lap. When our companion Issac motioned to us that it was time to leave, I wondered if there was more. Had the ceremony begun yet? I said goodbye to the little girl, which smarted, and made my way out. Then I turned back and whispered to a woman by the door, “Sorry, just to make sure—is the ceremony finished?” I was met with a puzzled yes. “The coffee ceremony,” I said. “Was that it? Or were we too late?” “No,” she said. “This was it.” “OK,” I said. “But when was it?” She put her hand on my shoulder. “You had coffee?” I nodded, embarrassed. She patted me. “Ishi,” she said. (That means “OK.”) “You were here. We celebrated that.”
So no drums or costumes, and the cake was not the point. It was the soundtrack of fresh beans tumbling over one another and sparking. A cup of something warm, and an unforced smile from the lady pouring it. The celebration is the nothing; it’s the quiet party that civilization allows you if you are blessed to have a moment to rest.
Today my daughter is as tall as me, and I tell her she’s my visual meditation. Her face is a great place for me to land when I need to take a breath. Her eyes are like a well that you’ll never reach the bottom of, and that endless list of positives she brought has “tranquility from simple gratitude” spelled out somewhere near the top. I keep looking for more ways to make myself slow down if not actually stop, and to be OK with life continuing as I mark myself an observing participant and not a frantic spectator.
I confess the franticness is happening a little now as I write this. I told myself: Don’t get worked up writing 10 versions explaining how you compromise life by getting worked up about doing 10 versions of everything. I tried to just see what would happen if I let it happen, and though my throat seized up at first, I eventually took a breath and embraced the impulse to fill the whole rest of the page with a bunch of really pretty Z’s and just enjoy the wonderfully adequate cup of coffee next to me.
For more stories like this, pick up the February issue of InStyle, available on newsstands and for digital download Jan. 5.