Cinnamon toast

There’s a restaurant we love because it serves cinnamon toast that is vastly better than what we make at home. A friend recently sent us a gift box of spice blends to make dip or top sandwiches and one of them is cinnamon sugar. Right, it’s not a complicated combination but having it ready to sprinkle inspired me this week to try to get closer to the restaurant’s version.

I did not start the week expecting improved cinnamon toast to be the highpoint. According to my calendar, I was going to finish a blog post on Monday, go to yoga on Tuesday, welcome my brother for a visit on Wednesday that would include a trip to the food bank and meal preparation and service for the local community dinner on Thursday, an appointment in Iowa City on Friday, and meetings with clients throughout the week.

Instead, on Monday I spilled a glass of water that took out my laptop. Extreme cold and ice cancelled yoga, my brother’s visit, the food bank pick-up, the community dinner, and my trip to Iowa City. The only survivor was meeting with clients since most of those conversations happen over the phone. What had been a relatively busy week became three nearly empty days exacerbated by partner’s absence since her flight to a conference in Atlanta was merely delayed.

This quantity of unexpected free time is not my friend. Alone, trapped in the house by the weather, an infuriating news cycle, and a ruined computer put me in the cross hairs of those two voices I so often hear howling in my head.

Martha Beck calls these voices the dictator and the wild child. While the dictator second guesses our decisions, reminds us of past mistakes, and warns of looming catastrophes the wild child is the voice of pure need—helpless and overwhelmed. Most of us hear voices like this and either get carried away by their constant presence or try to silence them by shoving them down. Beck asks us, instead, to notice that in her totally inappropriate way, the dictator is trying to protect the wild child from harm and that the wild child is simply trying to get her needs met. Notice this, Beck encourages, and cultivate an attitude of loving-kindness toward them.

It’s great advice and I’ve made a lot of progress in seeing when these voices are working on me. One thing that’s helped is that I can picture them. My internal dictator is an imposing woman whose reproaches and protests are communicated at an operatic pitch. The voice of pure need looks like a dirty rag doll. She doesn’t talk she just wants.

This week the tyrant wanted to yell at me about killing my computer, criticize me for not being more productive with my unexpected free time, and lecture me about what I ate. All the while the voice of pure need kept trying to drown her out by turning up the television while searching the house for junk food.

As I work to accept that I am not my thoughts and therefore, that I am not either of these voices, a third entity that Beck calls “The Watcher,” the consciousness that sees and hears these two voices, gets stronger. Observing these two voices with an attitude of loving-kindness is a powerful antidote. When they get going, I acknowledge them and encourage them to take a nap. I see the opera singer stretching out on a beautiful red velvet chaise lounge while the dirty rag doll curls up in the corner with a blanket.

While a quiet mind is a beautiful thing and one I strive for both in meditation and throughout daily life sometimes I need to fill the space left by the silenced voices. I pay attention to how I feel in my body and what those physical feelings are telling me about my mental state. This week, I said, out loud, “I feel sick to my stomach. I feel scared because I made a mistake and it’s going to be an expensive one.” I reminded myself, “In this moment, I am not in danger and I have successfully managed difficult situations before. I know what to do.”

When I feel reluctant to take the time to use evidence of my own competence to speak the truth to myself. I think about the time and energy it takes to be afraid and to fall apart. That renews my commitment to acknowledging the voices and addressing them with compassion and facts.

When I replace the voices of criticism and fear with my essential voice, the one who knows what I’m capable of achieving I make room for clear thoughts like calling a friend who knows what about a wet laptop, for gratitude because I have the resources to replace a 10 year old computer, and for the time to practice making better cinnamon toast.


Beating snark into loving kindness

A few weeks ago I read Margaret Renkl’s thoughtful meditation on raking leaves. I appreciated the insight she found in such a simple act. As she writes, “It will help you remember what the wind always teaches us in autumn: that just because you can’t see something doesn’t mean it isn’t there.”

While I enjoyed the essay I was a little surprised to see it garnered nearly 400 comments; a number I associate with polemical essays rather than ones devoted to everyday wisdom. It seemed unlikely to me that 400 people took the time to write, “That was lovely. Thank you.” And I was right. Some did express that sentiment. Several others agreed that there is pleasure and peace to be gained from a task like raking leaves but went on to decry rules against burning them since that smell is essential to their childhood memories. I should have known there would be defenders of leaf blowers (“So much depends on lot size.”) and there was the guy called the essay inane drivel because he mulches as he mows. That seemed harsh given that Renkl was clearly foursquare in favor mulching. But the comment I found myself thinking about throughout the day was from Andy in Salt Lake City who wrote, “’Wait, you have a yard?’ says everyone in America under 35.’”

I understood from the structure of the comment that Andy was accusing Renkl of failing him as a reader but I wasn’t sure I understood the exact nature of his criticism. Was it that she didn’t explicitly acknowledge that not everyone has a yard or was it worse, did he think her essay reeked of unacknowledged privilege because having a yard outside your house is something that only people of a certain socioeconomic class enjoy?

I know I felt implicated in his criticism of Renkl because within seconds my inner college debater was on the case. “Everyone in America under 35 huh? Are you including those, many of them children, who live at home with their parents? A lot of them live in houses that have a yard and trees. And if you’re only talking about adults living on their own what’s your point? I didn’t own a house until I was 38. I knew and know many people under 35 who live in rental houses with yards, just as I did growing up. Where do crappy rental houses with yards fit in here? I also know people who live in a loft, condo, or townhouse and are thrilled not to have the hassle of yard work. Maybe you’re pointing to student loan debt and implying that no one under 35 can afford to buy a house. Maybe in Salt Lake City but where I live it’s cheaper to own than rent. If you really want a yard, maybe you should move to a different housing market. And you know, there’s research that suggests home ownership, like car ownership, is less highly valued by people under 35. And it’s true that the average age of first home purchase is up but people are also getting married and having children later too. Of course, some of that is due to crushing student loan debt but that’s not the whole story nor is waiting to engage in some of those things necessarily an act of sacrifice. People make choices Andy. And another thing, not every essay is for every reader.”

I genuinely believe that my energy is precious and that what I do with my mind in each moment matters therefore, I was irritated with the choice I kept making throughout the day to spar with Andy. Eventually, I managed to stop and ask myself why I was so bothered by his comment or as Tara Brach might ask, “What in me is disturbed by his comment?

It disturbed me that I didn’t know the precise nature of his criticism. I felt out of touch, possible old. That’s when I realized that I neither want to snark back at a comment like this nor do I want to dismiss it. What I hope for is the ability to feel loving kindness toward the writer. I’m grateful to Andy because his comment challenged me to examine what I take for granted and what don’t I know about the lives of everyone in America under 35.