A Photograph of me without me in it

A Photograph of me without me in it
A photograph of me without me in it

Monday, February 23, 2015


Yesterday, I attended a monthly meditation meeting at the University of Washington's School of Social Work. It was my second meeting with these three other women, and like last time it was lovely. One person, I'll call her Sherry, opened the meditation with "angel cards," a lot of cards with words on them. Each of us chose a card randomly, and the word on that card stayed with us through the two hours. My word was "patience." One of the leaders, I'll call her Mia, invited us to journal about our word. "No! Don't throw me in the briar patch!" I thought to myself. (I love writing as much as Brer Rabbit loves brambles. My partner Ann once said to me, "You've never seen a prompt you didn't like." As I heard it, she did not say this with admiration.) 

I began:

Patience is my word for today. It seems like a funny word to have chosen because patience has always been a strength for me, and it seems like I should have chosen something that I need to work on. Actually, I've generally been patient with everyone except myself and with every life except my own. Before my tumors, I sometimes slipped on the wet pavement as I hurried from car to classroom to xerox machine. (At these times, the load of graded papers in my arms would rise into the air like a cartoon coyote, stopping still in the air for a moment before coming to the ground, though Coyote always zoomed to the bottom of the canyon while my students' papers fluttered like falling leaves to the wet ground.)

I think this impatience with myself and my time has changed since my tumors. Now that I'm so slow, logic tells me that I should be more anxious about moving faster, about losing time, but I'm not. Now that it's clearer to me that I will do less in this life than I once imagined… less in each day than I once expected…I'm strangely more at peace with my limitations. It's like having had brain tumors gave me a time out (to borrow from my friend Michael's children's sermon yesterday about Jesus's 40 days in the wilderness being a like a "time out" that Jesus had given himself).

Since my tumors, I have recalibrated, not just recalculated: I have not only found new directions once my original paths were closed off, but I have also set new measures of success, new ways of being. I've begun to understand myself as a very small piece of the universe, not a diminishing thought but an expansive one. I am a small part of something much bigger than myself. I'm part of a very large whole, not just a whole in myself who needs to get something done.

The world is generally more patient with me, too--at least that how it seems to me--when they see my cane or my crossed eyes. Last year, as I made my way slowly down the bus stairs to downtown, a mother held her young son from charging up the stairs. I heard her say to him, "Patience. Do you know what that means?" The wise boy responded, "Wait."

I was delighted by this response. To a young boy, patience means wait. To me, it means breathe.

Which is another thing we did in our meditation group: breathe. We did a "shining skull" breathing exercise where each of us inhaled deeply into our abdomens, forced the air out through our noses in a burst and then started the cycle again. We must have sounded like we were trying to force buggers out with a burst of air and no kleenex, a sound which upset Monica's (I'm calling Monica) golden lab, Kramer. I heard a noise and peaked out of one eye to see an agitated Kramer looking from one person to the next, not sure what had had caused this sudden sickness and whom he should help first. I laughed, so I was not exactly a shining skull, but a chuckling one. 

All this breathing practice seems a little funny, since I've breathing all my life, but it's amazing to learn how much there is to learn about it. I can't just read about how to breathe. Like Merlin tells the Wart in E.B. White's The Once and Future King: education is experience. My mentors can go with me at first, but then I just have to learn from my own experience.

I practice meditation, focusing on my breathing, most mornings. I begin with one of Carolyn McManus's ten-minute guided meditations, then do 40 minutes of yoga. Then, if I have time, I practice sitting meditation on my own for 30 minutes. (Sometimes I don't have time because I tend to sleep late and need to take supplements to help me with energy an hour before I eat breakfast, then again two hours after breakfast and one hour before lunch.)

Most mornings, I stay focused on my breath and Carolyn's instructions during the ten-minute guided meditation, but when I'm own, my mind's more like a squirrel dashing about hiding nuts than like a river in time’s immortal flow. From time to time, however, I'm steady. What's that like?  I wrote about it once right after the meditation, knowing that the vision would not stay with me:

For me, meditation is diving into a deep pool of blue-green water. The water is lit, but there is no clear source of light. I imagine that this pool is like the lacuna in Barbara Kingsolver's book of the same name. I am at ease. The water is still but not stagnant. I am neither cold nor hot. My eyes are open and soft, and I see with my heart. I do not have double vision. Though I do not have an oxygen tank--or any equipment--I breathe easily here. At first, there is only the water and me, but then my mind summons colorful fish that swim around me and do not frighten me. They are wondrous. At some point, my alarm sounds, the signal that my half hour of meditation is over. I rise to the surface. I am calmer now than I was before I went in the water, but my mind begins to agitate a little about where I will dry off and how I will stay warm. I start to notice the woods around me. I carry that easy water in me as I go.

Now that I’m not in the glow of that meditation, I must add, “The squirrel is resting, but she will be back.”

That's not being pessimistic. That's just realistic. I'm not a monk. If  enlightenment is a destination, I haven't reached it. I used to think of it as a destination, a place I'd like to go, but now I think it's really just in the moment. Some moments I'm there. Most moments I'm not.

Maybe squirrels are like that, too.