Well, I had all kinds of high hopes of writing a blog post on Sunday, but it didn’t happen. In the morning, I had a little cry at the kitchen table, brought on by a temporary wave (a redundant phrase if ever there was one) of overwhelm and no doubt hormones. Then I went to my office, set my insight meditation timer on my phone, and sat for 15 minutes. I have now meditated for four days in a row, which may not sound like much. But anyone who has ever created or broken a habit will concur that especially in the beginning, every day is a victory. In fact, I’d say that continues to be true even after many years. For example, I quit smoking — the last time, that is — on July 7, 2015. Those first days were so hard. And then sure enough, it did get easier, until little by little the desire to smoke started not to dominate my every waking thought. It still does appear in dreams, and every now and then the urge to sit and smoke clove cigarettes overcomes me.
Anyway, on the creating new habits front, not what I expected to be writing about but here we are, returning to a regular sitting meditation practice has started to feel like a matter of life and death. I know that’s dramatic, but I think that’s often how it is with these things — you think “I should do this” forever, but you don’t do this, whatever the “this” is. And then the need becomes urgent because of whatever is going on in your life or in your being, and suddenly your back is against the wall and you think, “oh shit, I really can’t afford to put this off any longer.”
I’m in the process of writing a longer piece about this, but in a word, I’ve been contending with some anxiety and depression lately. There are reasons and there are not-reasons. Some circumstantial things, to be sure, and some things that are most likely my wiring, given that this is not a brand new experience for me by a long shot. What I am more aware of than ever as I pivot into the second half of my 40s, is that how I meet these moments is up to me, and the actions I take may well be as important, perhaps even more so, as the origins of the feelings themselves.
I have written about this in the past — the first mindfulness group I ever attended in college, based on the practices of Thich Nhat Hanh, and the wonderful campus physician who introduced me to his books. That was in the early 90s, and my own practice has been sporadic on the one hand — in the daily sense — and consistent on the other — if you look at it as something that has remained in my life in some form for the past 25 years. I wouldn’t say I’m “good at it,” but I also don’t really believe that’s the point. The point is, just like with writing, to show up, set a timer, and sit down.
It was Friday afternoon when it occurred to me that sitting for 15 minutes in the car, having arrived early to pick Pearl up at his dad’s for a little date, would be a way to spend the extra time. The little chime sounded, and the relief was immediate. The relief of stillness. The relief of silence. The relief of doing nothing. I sat in the driver’s seat, the keys dangling from the ignition, eyes gently fixed on the bush in front of the windshield and the leaves fluttering now and then in the breeze. I saw my mind do what the mind always does — jump from thought to thought to thought to thought. And I just kept returning to the breath. Inhale. Exhale. Thought thought thought thought thought. Leaves fluttering. Eyes heavy. Inhale. Exhale. Car warm. Drowsy. Thought thought thought thought. Inhale. Exhale. Temptation to check timer. Inhale. Exhale. And then, finally, the chime. Aaaaaaaah. I did it.
Saturday morning brought blue skies, bright sun, and crisp, fall temperatures in the 60s. Mani and I had made a date to see the Downton Abbey movie at the mall, and I decided to walk there. I have a new therapist — first time I’ve seen a therapist in many years, since before leaving Vermont in 2012 — and after just two sessions I am already internalizing her voice. “Exercise, sleep, food.” This reminder to prioritize the basics is one I need to hear often. And while I am not doing anything majorly different on any of these fronts — exercise these days means a two-mile run a few days a week, a brisk walk, eating well means cooking more homemade meals, adding more veggies to balance out the simple carbs and ice cream I crave and enjoy — just being more intentional about moving and feeding my body feels significant. And like the sitting, it feels newly crucial. If I don’t take care of myself in these ways, nobody else will.
What was really interesting after my first session with this therapist was realizing that I had completely forgotten to mention the fact that I had melanoma and surgery early in the summer. But I know that this impacted me more than I’ve acknowledged. How could it not have?
So, back to Saturday morning and walking to the movie. Right after I left the house, I encountered a canvas bag on the sidewalk. I picked it up and looked inside, finding two bills, stamped and ready to be mailed. There was a return address label, so I took the bag with me in order to return it to the person’s house later. The bike path was lovely — fall colors in full blast. My walking pace and rhythm brought some balance to my rather unsteady mood, and I was relived to be in motion, breathing the chilly, bright air. By the time I arrived at the mall, about 40 minutes later, my lower back was bothering me but my head felt clearer and quieter. Since Mani wouldn’t be there for another 15 minutes or so, I decided to set my insight timer. I slid myself down onto the ground, my back against the building in the sun, something in the past I would’ve done with a pack of cigarettes and a journal. I brought a soft gaze to the sidewalk just in front of me, and I sat. Again, relief.
Later Saturday, I deep cleaned our bedroom. I’m talking behind Chalupa’s crate, under the bed, heaps of dust and dog fur, cobwebs climbing the walls kind of cleaning. I shared some photos from my morning walk on Instagram, and a poet I follow shared this link with me, which couldn’t have been more fitting. And I really did mean to write on Sunday, but it didn’t happen. Like I said earlier, the morning brought some Big Feelings., which I weathered by talking with Mani, then journaling before heading to meet with a client in my office. Later there was grocery shopping to do, and dinner to cook, and dishes to wash.
I have never written on a schedule. I’m not a Tantalizing Tuesday or Fantastic Friday type of blogger, never have been and it seems unlikely that I’ll change on that front anytime soon. I’m more of a show up when I can and want to kind of writer. Sometimes I can but don’t want to, and sometimes I want to but just can’t for whatever reasons. So when a window presents itself — like today — to sit down and take some time to just write, I’m so very glad to do just that.
In a little bit, the kids and I are going to meet up with my parents and one of my sisters with her family to eat Chinese food before Kol Nidre, the evening service at the opening of Yom Kippur. We will also be celebrating Aviva’s birthday, which is Thursday. So after chicken and broccoli and veggie lo mein and steamed dumplings and lemon cupcakes with homemade cream cheese frosting (her request), we will gather to atone as a community for all the times in the past year we missed the mark. I have missed the mark plenty of times — sometimes by being unclear about my boundaries, sometimes by doubting myself, sometimes by ingratitude, sometimes by being impatient with the people closest to me, sometimes by shutting down and sometimes by forgetting what matters most.
If I have hurt you in this past year, I am truly sorry. Please forgive me.
The Hebrew word we translate as “atone” is t’shuvah, which literally means “turning” or “returning.”
And so here’s what I will take into the new year, as the Book of Life closes once again: A commitment to returning, again and again, to practice. For me, this applies to everything — from sitting meditation to not smoking to writing words to how I show up in my family and communities. It is both the most and the least I can do.
Wishing you sweet and healthy new year. Thank you for being on the other side of the words.