“You are beautiful” the Mexican waiter says to Alex without a hint of irony. Turning to me he says, “You are present”. We are at Café Gratitude in Venice Beach, LA, an amazing plant-based eatery. Every item on the menu is named an affirmation – hence the waiter’s declarations. Along with adaptogen smoothies, and ayurvedic lattes, they even provide us with a question for the day. Who do you acknowledge? At first glance it seems very easy to answer, but as our day progresses, it becomes clearer that it is not so simple.
I’ve been to LA before but never to stay. It’s always been a transit destination for me. I’m not sure why as I’ve dreamed of visiting Venice Beach for near on 30 years, ever since as a teenager I sat in my bedroom, totally hung up on The Doors and the 60s Venice scene.
And I’m not disappointed. There is still something special about Venice with its quiet back alleys, canals, and wide expanse of sand, fringed with palm trees. My ear worms veer from LA Woman to Love Street. We hire bikes daily from our hotel and cycle the boardwalk from Santa Monica to Venice. On each side of our cycle lane, people exercise, meditate, sit and contemplate the Pacific Ocean. A barefoot hippie on a bike overtakes us – he’s playing a Vedic chant on his stereo. He nods at us, it’s a little slice of joy passing by. Later the Hare Krishnas invade Santa Monica pier, replete with drums and bells. In the UK this would have been scorned. Here it is welcomed. It lightens the mood on the pier, people dance and sing. Surely this is what spirituality is all about?
We sample the many plant-based restaurants in the area. It’s a pleasure to be somewhere that embraces veganism so fully. Our first night we eat south Indian, second night Ethiopian, third night Californian. My notebook is full of ideas, food combinations and supplements. At Café Gratitude I enjoy a blend of Ayurvedic herbs and plants, including Chaga and Reishi Mushrooms. For two hours afterwards I am as focused as a sniper! We eat some Acai bowls that are mind-blowingly good. At a non-descript chain restaurant I have an avocado salad that is surely one of the best I have ever had. With all the sunshine, fruit, veg, and “erbs” we feel righteous. It’s easy to understand how one might become super healthy living here.
But as with every sunny scene, there is a shadow. And LA – California in general – is no exception. At every turn, interspersed with people meditating and drinking chai lattes, there are homeless people splayed out. Some lying facing down on the pavement (Fentanyl addiction is a huge problem here); it’s impossible to tell if they’re alive or dead, or whether in fact the distinction even matters to anyone here anymore. To us it’s dis-arming – we don’t know whether to stop and help or turn and run. The blank nonchalance to it that surely only comes with time, eludes us. I see a man laid out on the sidewalk, wrapped in a shower curtain for a blanket. It hits home – I spent 2 hours choosing a shower curtain for our bathroom before we came out to LA. It’s all he has.
We visit Golds Gym to see the outside workout area only to find most of it now fenced off. Across the street from the gym, there’s a tented village of the homeless, staring directly at those that have so much they have the time and resources to lift weights in the sun. I can only imagine the discomfort gym goers must have felt, mid-lift, to stare into the eyes of someone with absolutely nothing. Little surprise the gym decided to fence it out.
And so, we get back to the question posed to us at Café Gratitude. Who do you acknowledge? I would suggest that the answer should be anyone who falls into your field of awareness. But here in LA, it’s more a matter of acknowledging only the acceptable. Blocking the unacceptable from your awareness by not seeing it. Of course, it’s not only people in LA who do this. How many times in London have I walked past a homeless person and tried not to see them? Not out of ignorance or spite, but out of fear or discomfort. Often homelessness walks alongside mental illness, or the unpredictability of addiction. If we as humans crave safety, then it stands to reason we will not put ourselves in the path of danger.
For all its Wholefood stores, spas, Acai bowls, and yoga studios, how healthy is LA? As the divide between the rich and the poor widens incrementally, is the best response to put our hands over our eyes and pretend it isn’t happening? This isn’t mindfulness, it’s dissociation. An energy sapping defence to an uncomfortable situation. Rather like smiling and trying to pretend to your dinner guests that everything is ok while in the background your kitchen is on fire. We adopt the same strategies too with the climate, immigration, declining quality of life. We either choose not to see it or adopt a strategy of denial, papering over the cracks with positive thinking or delusion.
Our health is not just related to how we treat ourselves. Our environment, and our society counts too. You can drink adaptogen smoothies, and mushroom chai until they’re coming out your ears, but if you’re stepping off your yoga mat into a world you have to block out, can you really say you’re healthy? The sunshine in California casts a much darker shadow these days.