Two pieces of paper

There are so many ways to get to know a new city when you move. You can drive yourself places, even when folks offer to pick you up. You can get a post office box and learn multiple routes to the same location. Or leave your car parked on the street and attract someone who smashes the window thinking a blanket in the backseat of a 12 year-old Toyota Corolla is hiding something valuable. It wasn’t but auto glass replacement services are in a part of town I had yet to visit. Fortunately, the service was fast, competitively priced, and, as I’ve observed, like so many businesses in Tacoma, conveniently located next to a coffee hut.

I’m not going to say I hate moving. I’m going to say it’s a challenge to my equanimity. Also, it reminds me of living through the aftermath of a tornado. When an F3 tornado blew through the college town where I once lived, my department colleagues and I were moved, along with three other departments, to a FEMA trailer for the final weeks of the semester. And the summer break. And the first several weeks of the fall term as windows and ceiling tiles and carpets were replaced throughout our building. Despite my ability to see the big picture and know that I was one of the fortunate ones, I found myself struggling to accomplish the simplest tasks as the feeling of a world turned upside pervaded every aspect of life, particularly in the FEMA trailer. Holding two pieces of paper with no greater desire than to find a way to keep them together, I could find staples but not a stapler, tape dispensers but no tape, binder clips but not paper clips. There were no small tasks, familiar routines, or easily fulfilled needs.

The memory of those weeks has been my near-constant companion in the wake of our recent move from West Central Illinois to the Pacific Northwest. I knew from previous moves what it feels like to try to learn names and faces, places and routes, as quickly as possible in order to connect with others, pick up the mail, and replace a smashed car window. But I’m a few weeks in and still feel as if I have either aged 10 years or returned to infancy—taking naps, going to bed early, and sleeping late. My brain is overloaded as, to quote Miss Carly Simon, “even the simple things become rough.”

After the tornado, my apartment building was condemned and I moved into the second bedroom in my mother’s apartment. I was grateful for her generosity but had no intention of staying a minute longer than necessary. I was excited when a nice apartment became available. But I made no move to move. This went on for several weeks. My mother and I finally realized that the disruptions caused by the tornado had taken a toll on me. Despite the shared bathroom and tiny bedroom, I was having a hard time leaving the safety and comfort of her loving presence. Living with her made at la east few aspects of my life simple, familiar, and easy. These many years later, I seek to be my own loving presence—kind, patient, and compassionate toward myself, and others, here in my new world.

Everyday hate

I learned to stop saying I hated anyone after my mother scolded me. “We don’t hate anyone. We might dislike what they do but we don’t hate other people,” she said. Being a good girl, I thought it instead. I hated kids who teased me, mean teachers, and even my siblings. Learning that I was free, in the privacy of my own mind, to have such thoughts was a great source of liberation for me as a child.

Of course, as an adult, my mother was free to openly hate other people. She hated everyone from Richard Nixon to the next-door neighbor. Fortunately, she had a great sense of humor that included the ability to laugh at herself. Here’s one of her favorite stories. She was the nurse at a residential treatment center run by an order of Catholic nuns. Having attended Catholic schools, churches, and nurse’s training, she was very comfortable around nuns. Maybe too comfortable. One day, she drove to a nearby pharmacy to pick up a prescription and one of the nuns, who was about 85, went along for the ride. At some point, another driver cut my mom off and she made a derogatory, profanity-enhanced comment about his intelligence. The nun gently patted my mother’s hand and said, “You know dear, he can’t hear you. But I can.”

Over the years, I’ve perceived my hateful thoughts as a sort of victimless crime because, in contrast to my mother, I kept my harshest thoughts to myself. The trivial transgressions of other drivers and other shoppers, people in yoga class and pundits on television give my ego the opportunity to take me on a wild ride of judgment, criticism, and hate. Matthieu Ricard writes that when we feel wronged by another our vision narrows such that we only see the other’s negative qualities and “fail to see people and events in the context of a much vaster web of interrelated causes and conditions.” Everyday hateful thoughts can are sustained not by being present to the moment but fixating on a particular, decontextualized moment in time.

The more I’ve learned to watch my mind at work the more I notice how little satisfaction I derive from reducing others to a single aggravating act. What starts out as a pleasurable sensation of moral superiority quickly evolves into what Ricard describes as a corrosive force, one that shreds my equanimity and weakens my capacity for compassion.

Getting caught up in hateful thoughts is as useless as shouting at someone in another car so I am grateful when I can reach out to gently remind myself that the only person damaged by such thoughts is me.

What thoughts keep you trapped in a particular moment in time?

Ratatouille pie

I glanced through the recipe eager to try an alternative to yet another pot of ratatouille. I could see there were a lot of steps but I enjoy chopping vegetables and I’ve succeeded at piecrust before. I planned it for Sunday but I hadn’t accounted for chilling the pie dough. Finally, on Tuesday I had enough time.

Make the pie dough, chill it for an hour, chop eggplant, onion, zucchini, and cherry tomatoes and marinate them with garlic cloves in olive oil, thyme, and rosemary. Roll out the dough, wrangle it into the pie pan and chill for another 30 minutes then cook it with pie weights for 15 minutes, then without pie weights for another ten. Turn the oven up to 400 and roast the onion and tomatoes on one cookie sheet for 35 minutes and the zucchini, eggplant, and garlic on another for 45. Mix grated cheese, an egg, and mayonnaise in a bowl.

At this point, I’d been in the kitchen for most of the afternoon. As I reached the final stage of the recipe, my partner came home from work. A charming and sunny woman she was full of entertaining stories about her day. She had gathered more produce from our garden and was working around me to get it cleaned and put away. As she talked, I filled the now cooled piecrust with the roasted vegetables, spooned the egg, cheese, mayo mixture on top, turned the oven down to 375 and put the pie in the oven to cook for 30 minutes. We both thought it looked delicious as we left the kitchen to continue our conversation in the living room.

When I went to check on it about 20 minutes later, I was surprised to see that while the cheese mixture had melted, it didn’t look as though it, or the piecrust had cooked. As I tried to figure out if this was how it was supposed to look I glanced up to see that the oven, though still warm from par baking the pie crust and roasting vegetables, was off. Confused, my first thought was that my partner had turned it off but in the next moment I realized it was my fault. When you change the temperature on our oven, you hit the stop button, enter the new temperature, and then hit start. I did the first two steps but not the third. I let out a loud expletive. My partner said, “What’s wrong?” I said, “I forgot to turn the oven back on.” She laughed.

I’m happy to report that I did not shout at her for finding my afternoon’s wasted labor funny. However, I’m unhappy to report that my equanimity was shattered. I turned the oven to 375, pressed start, and walked upstairs. I sat on the bed screaming (quietly to myself) about all that ruined effort and if not ruined then certainly not the dish featured in the New York Times. I wanted to blame my partner for her distracting stories but I knew I had committed two of the cardinal sins of my mother’s house: Carelessness and wasted food.

The truest, deepest feeling I had in that moment was: There is no room for error in my life. I will always be thwarted in reaching my desires because I’m always going to make a mistake that ruins all the effort that preceded that mistake. The universe is just waiting for me to screw up so it can say, “You’re not good enough to get what you want. Even if all you want is to try out a new recipe.”

I stayed there for several minutes before I took three deep breaths. In the space of those breaths I was able to remember something important. I was never making the pie described in the recipe. The recipe didn’t call for a half wheat half white flour crust. I’d changed cheeses, skipped the olives, and sautéed the zucchini instead of roasting it because I already had a grated a bag of it to use up.

What had I wanted if not the original recipe? I’d wanted to spend an afternoon making pie dough, chopping vegetables, and managing the complications of a new recipe. The pleasure of making something with my own hands, using the vegetables from our garden, creating something I knew my partner would enjoy—all of that was real. The only thing that was going to ruin what I had done was my willingness to give my happiness away to the illusion that I am not allowed to make mistakes.

I wish I’d taken a picture of it. It looked nothing like the quiche I made a few years ago that’s pictured above but it tasted just as good.


When are you most intolerant of your humanness, your fallibility?

Practice has nothing to do with perfect

The outdoor Christmas market in downtown Chicago the Saturday after Thanksgiving—who would expect it to cause suffering? Probably anyone who feels overwhelmed by a large crowd packed into a small space. But my partner and I had been before and wanted her niece to experience it. Laura took the lead, her niece followed, and I was happy to let them choose where to stop. Unfortunately, at a stall with European candies, I made a tactical error. We all three waded through the crowd for a closer look but I turned my head to examine an item for several seconds. When I looked up they were gone. I scanned the crowd expecting to spot them easily as I couldn’t imagine they’d gone far.

But I didn’t see them and as the seconds passed I felt my chest tighten and my jaw clench. More time passed and a roaring voice in my head let loose. “All I did was look at something for a few seconds and they abandoned me without a backward glance! Why can’t I find something interesting without being punished for not following along like an obedient dog?” I am the youngest of six and I was so routinely overlooked that family stories were told about all the times my mother and siblings forgot to notice my existence. My five, six, ten-year old self was standing in that Christmas market in Chicago. She never found those stories funny and she wasn’t laughing now.

You can’t imagine, or maybe you can, how much I want this to be my partner’s fault.But it’s hard to know how far down the rabbit hole we need to go when we try to blame others for our feelings. My partner’s to blame for not noticing me stopping to look at candy, but I’m to blame because I stopped following closely behind them, or is she to blame for wanting to come to this crowded market, or am I to blame for agreeing to it, clearly the people who manage this thing are to blame for poor crowd control, and Chicago’s to blame for sponsoring the market, the weather’s to blame for being so nice that a lot of people came out to shop, and when you get right down to it, Jesus is to blame because this whole thing started with his birthday. Of course, no one is to blame. There are only facts: I am in a very crowded place and I can’t see my people. No one did anything wrong, not even me.

Despite the roaring in my head, I was able to make a good decision. I moved slightly away from the candy stall to a more central space and stood still. Within three or four minutes I spotted them. As I approached, my partner’s niece called out, “Oh, she found us!” The incident ended but I struggled with the feelings the brief separation evoked. Now in addition to feelings of abandonment and anger, I was upset with myself for being so reactive. Wow, was it hard to slap a smile on my face and keep moving through that crowd.

Eventually the feelings dissipated enough or were sufficiently stuffed down that I was reasonably pleasant for the rest of the trip but when I got home I fell apart. It wasn’t just the market. The travel had disrupted my routine—a missed yoga class, no meditation, no inspirational reading. And initially, I wondered if traveling was just something I’m bad at because I can’t maintain the practices that help me stay in the present. Fortunately, a conversation with my coach was on my schedule for Tuesday and her kind wisdom helped me face a deeper challenge.

My ego hijacked me—it took a perfectly normal occurrence and blew it up into a terrifying trip down memory lane. In that moment my partner didn’t abandon me I abandoned me.

In the last few months I’ve thought a lot about the practices I’ve developed. One day it dawned on me why people go to church or read their religion’s holy texts over and over. Practice. We’re practicing so that in bad moments the clarity and equanimity that come from faith are available to us. I sit in quiet contemplation of the knowledge that I Am so that when the world around me and within me starts to fly into a thousand pieces, I don’t fly with them. Clearly, I need a lot more practice. And that’s okay.

Lost and found

The first time I volunteered at Knox Prairie Community Kitchen’s twice-monthly free dinners I was nervous. We were given good instructions but I still felt unsure of myself and when the church basement filled with more than one hundred strangers, my muscles tightened and my pulse began to race. As the evening wore on I filled water glasses, cleared away plates, and relaxed enough to commit to returning in two weeks for the next dinner.

For several months, I showed up at 4:45 p.m. and listened to instructions urging us to treat everyone as we expect to be treated and to get all the food waste off the plates. I poured coffee, found extra napkins, brought dinners to those with limited mobility, and pushed all the food waste off the plates. When the last guest finished, I sometimes stayed to help clean up but most often I headed home. As I walked to my car, I would feel as if I was returning to my body. Spending two hours thinking only of the task in front of me, only of the people who needed my help, there was no space in my mind for my normally obsessive attention to myself. My ego was on a holiday. But our egos aren’t interested in time off.

KPCK is like a lot of all volunteer-run organizations—if you stick around long enough they put you in charge. Within a few months, I was the one providing careful instruction on how we treat our guests and how to clear a plate to satisfy the dishwashers. I arrive in early afternoon to help cook and I stay until the last dish is returned to the cupboard.

I enjoyed these responsibilities until I didn’t, until I became completely identified with my role in the group. When that happened, my ego became a howling chorus of complaints, blame, and criticism: volunteers leave too much food on plates, guests go to the dinner line before I’ve directed them to do so, another Board member disagreed with me. The time I spent with KPCK was no longer a respite, a way to get outside myself but just another manifestation of my ego’s need to be center stage.

I’m trying to remember to pause, to pay attention when the controlled chaos of dining room threatens to overwhelm my desire to make these dinners a joyous occasion for the other volunteers and especially for our guests. Many of our guests experience alienation and isolation because their presence in the world makes the rest of us uncomfortable. I have the opportunity to make eye contact with each person who walks into that dining room, to make sure they know I see and recognize our shared humanity. When I lose myself in that moment, I am found.

You are that light

I’ve recently worked up to thirty minutes on a pillow on the floor for meditation. And even more recently, I’ve stopped spending the first ten minutes thinking about my physical discomfort. So one morning last week, I was eager to start and didn’t notice that the lamp behind me was still on.

Well on my way to a quiet mind I heard a small click and noticed a barely perceptible change in the light beyond my closed eyelids. Happily my initial impulse was to ignore both the sound and the changing light but my curious mind got the best of me. I opened my eyes, looked around, and saw the lamp was off. Had I left it on? I flipped the switch. Nothing. I was on my feet flipping light switches. Nothing. Questions filled my mind. Is it the whole neighborhood or just our house? Was it caused by the construction project down the street or is there something wrong with our electricity?

Thinking I would return to the pillow once I had answers, I tried to access the electric company’s website. The site asks for account information. Ours is in my partner’s name but her phone number wasn’t in their system and I couldn’t remember her previous number. Their public site shows an outage map but the information was too general to satisfy me.

By now all thoughts of meditation were gone as I became immersed in busy-ness and counting grievances. I manage the household bills but I didn’t have a job when we moved here so that’s why the utilities are in Laura’s name. That still pisses me off. We’ve got to get that changed but we only think of it when something goes wrong. Like the time I sent the electric bill in almost 10 days late and they turned off the power and I had to wire money to pay it. Had that happened this time? I didn’t think so but the shame of that incident washed over me nevertheless. I went back into the online system and tried to change the password by generating an email to Laura. I sent her a text asking her to check her account. A few minutes later she called to say no email. What address had she used to set up the account? Neither of us remembered. My mind was churning through questions and causes as my frustrations grew.

Fortunately, Laura was done at work and said she was headed home. That information brought me, mercifully, back to the present. I knew I would ruin the rest of my day and hers in my current state of distress. I took a deep breath and continued to focus on my breathing, I reminded myself that we were in no danger, that there was nothing I could do to get the electricity turned on, and that I’m always looking for an excuse to go out to lunch.

This incident returned to me as I was reading Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth. He writes, “You cannot fight against the ego and win just as you cannot fight against darkness. The light of consciousness is all that is necessary. You are that light.”

Cruise control

Everyone in my immediate family drives as if they’re in a contest. You win if you stay ahead of the traffic by exceeding the speed limit and passing others without drawing negative attention from law enforcement. It helps to be a middle-aged white woman in a nondescript car if you’re going to play—as evidenced by my single speeding ticket in over 30 years of driving. Everyone in my immediate family also swears, a lot, while driving as we continuously observe and evaluate the drivers around us. Perhaps it’s unnecessary to say that cruise control plays no role in our driving experience.

Each day I try to perform daily tasks like making the bed and brushing my teeth concentrating only on the task at hand and my immediate surroundings. My goal is to increase my tolerance for staying present to the moment. I decided to add driving to that list because it’s a frequent task and, given my family’s approach to driving, a challenge to both mindfulness and equanimity. On a recent solo trip from western Illinois to the Twin Cities I had four hundred miles to see if cruise control could help me on my path.

I was reluctant to use cruise control on the county road that takes me out of town and 50 miles north to the interstate. I thought slowing down for all of the small towns would be a hassle but in the spirit of giving it a try, I turned it on as soon as I cleared the last stop light out of Galesburg. I gained a lot of practice at tapping the brakes to slow down as I entered each town and hitting the resume knob to get back to 60 mph on my way out. Once I made it to the interstate, I thought about turning it off because there was so much traffic—the condition that makes me feel the greatest need for control. With some trepidation, and in the spirit of trying and all, I used it for most of the 60 miles from Davenport to just west of Iowa City. I became increasingly comfortable passing when I needed to and learned that the car resumes the set speed when I take my foot off the gas. When I left the interstate to head north toward Cedar Falls, Rochester, and eventually the Twin Cities I stayed on cruise until I came to a giant construction zone just north of Cannon Falls that led directly to rush hour traffic south of St. Paul. Using good judgment, as my car’s manual suggests, I estimate that I was on cruise for about 300 miles of the 400 mile trip.

As I drove, and now reflecting on the experience, I ask myself two questions. First, what was my body doing? The primary thing I noticed was that my body was relaxed. Not couch potato relaxed but not dominated by tension. I didn’t have a death grip on the steering wheel and I didn’t get that weird cramp in my left hamstring that often happens on long drives.

Second, what was my mind doing? I am mostly aware of what it wasn’t doing. I wasn’t engaged in a continuous evaluation of myself and other drivers. Am I getting too close to the car in front of me, why won’t that guy get out of the left lane, should I pass this truck or wait for this car that’s bearing down on me to go first? I wasn’t constantly checking or adjusting my speed. I’d set it just over the limit (not encouraged by my car’s manual but I am my mother’s daughter). I knew I was going an appropriate speed, not unconsciously speeding up or slowing down when someone was trying to pass me. I was also strangely unperturbed when others passed me.

Jonathan Foust encourages the practice of non-judging awareness on the path toward equanimity. That was at the core of this experience. I would also say it was, for the most part, an experience of mindfulness. I was in a comfortable state of alertness. There was plenty to think about without overanalyzing myself and other drivers or drifting off to worry about the past or future. I was intensely aware of and engaged by my surroundings—the traffic around me and the beautiful rolling farmlands on either side of the road.