Practicing contentment is a radical act in a consumption-driven society.
ROBIN WALL KIMMERER

It’s interesting that after years of charting my moods on the advice of therapists with various degrees, the Buddhist teacher I listen to now talks about “feelings”. In this system of categorizing, there are only three feelings: pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral.

Moods on the other hand are conceptual interpretations, applied meaning based on an understanding of context. Understanding in this context being an understanding, not knowledge in any objective sense.

This works for me.

I have no idea if this is “right” but I think about all the studies of the reptilian brain – the idea that organisms of all kinds exhibit either attraction, aversion, or disregard to phenomenon. How scientists continue to argue whether an aversion response is an indication of “pain” – or of what we call “suffering”.

This has changed my yoga (asana) practice entirely. It has also ushered in a brutally honest confrontation with my own psychological pain. There is a pleasantness in the familiar. That is a truth. Though not particularly noble.

It’s pleasantness in a dark groove of melancholy; pleasantness in naming a scapegoat for what is uncomfortable.

I find this kind of sorting of language and concepts pleasant, too. It somehow makes familiar ideas shiny and new. I think this pleasantness conceptualizes as pride: “I’m so smart.”

At dinner tonight E. and I were talking about the difference between delusion, hallucination and illusion. His curiosity about the language. Mine about my own ignorance of specifics.

Every year I have a few students in movement who complain that the exercises hurt. I ask, “Does it hurt, or is it just uncomfortable? Because each of those states requires a very different response: stop, or breathe.”

Only now, with my own children grown and my mistakes made – only now as my body is edging closer to limits and requires more attention – do I surrender to the truth of subjectivity.

Does it hurt? I hold the world

crying
as if it were my own newborn.


I’m still thinking about contentment: a mood. And how maybe contentment isn’t pleasant at all – but neutral. It’s a place to rest after the highs of gains, and achievements, and moments of wonder – but free of any fear of loss, and of any desire to accumulate more.

It requires an odd kind of faith, I think, to be content: faith that the continually changing world will bring both horrors and wonders into our present.

And we can learn to rest between them.

Breathe in.
Rest. (Wait – don’t hold – don’t clench with a glottal stop – ssh – just wait.)
Breathe out.
Again.

I tell my students if you’re never uncomfortable
you’re never learning, but

nothing in the world must try
to grow.

I have been wanting a sea change. Craving one, actually.

Watching for signs from my body: what causes stress, what releases it. I’m trying to carve pockets into the days to focus on intentional redirection.

But this time there can be no packing up and moving house. There’s no new job, no new relationship, no new discovery of a foreign country. This time things are different. It will take more effort. It will mean more deliberate choices.

I read an article yesterday that related the findings of Norwegian scientists who claim that people lose their drive (which they defined as the combination of grit and passion) at the age of 54. Decline, they call it. And have several suggestions to prevent it from happening. God forbid we lose our competitive edge.

I am 54.

I have long thought that the idea that people “slow down” in terms of curiosity or ambition is absurd. I think this because I have been teaching teenagers for over 20 years and know that there is a huge part of my modest sampling of the human population who are pushed through life: life happens to them. You are pushed to graduate from school, find a career, start a family, etc. Then there comes a time when nothing comes on its own. There’s no next predetermined rung on the ladder that society is pushing you up.

Believe me: society stops pushing you up. Your family no longer has set milestones for you. No expectations. Neither do employers, communities, researchers.

I believe the men and women running marathons and swimming the English Channel at the age of 70 are the same people who were pulling themselves up all along. The minority perhaps. And who knows, I may discover that I’m not even among them. Maybe this is when all is revealed: what in me is intrinsic, and what is contextual.

There are so many factors not taken into consideration when people draw conclusions about “grit and passion” and aging. There is a wisdom that comes at mid-life that can alter the appearance of grit – and temper passion, knowing the price it can demand.

Sometimes there’s a realization that your bluster and arguments – no matter how clever – will not change anyone’s mind at the dinner table. You are a storm in your own teacup.

Sometimes we realize that neither our victories nor our failures rearing our children really made any difference with regard to their victories or failures.

Sometimes we realize that all that applause we thought would fill us, doesn’t. All the spinning of the wheels isn’t getting us anywhere.

Just as countries measure their production and profit – not their sustenance – we as individuals measure our “wins”, not our contentment. So much so that contentment is not only undervalued, it is disdained. Maybe ambition changes into something we refuse to recognize. Something that looks less like profit.

Maybe we observe history being forgotten and realize that there is value in every present moment and that betting the now against a legacy is a strange act of an even stranger faith.

I’ve been craving a sea change and am trying to find a spell.
A narrow creek. An eye of newt.
A single branch of knotted pine.
Five silent terns, and a hooded gull’s cry.

It is a private act. This conjuring.
This particular ambition.

This morning things seemed to edge into a familiar groove. E. is home again, and Leonard stuck his cold nose in my face just before the clock went off. Dog bladders make the most urgent alarm clocks.

I let Leonard out to pee,

E. and I pull on wool clothes and running shoes
and head to the lake where our clocks are synced up
again with the crows’ morning congregation.
So loud and so lovely this morning. Lovely
in its own way. Earnest chatter.
Energetic and contagious.
My legs lose a little of their heaviness.

The lake has spilled over its banks,
but is still now. And dark.
A duck laughs.


We passed a man in his mid 70s. A woman somewhat older going in the opposite direction. This means so much to me: this reminder of what the path of the fortunate looks like.

Maybe literally.

After the run, the asana practice. And after the third chaturanga today my left shoulder began complaining again. After meditation and a shower, it started in yet again as I combed my hair. Loudly and unlovely.

I’m realizing that this is a conversation I will be mediating between my body and my id for the rest of my life. It’s weirdly like negotiating with children. Is this unpleasant feeling really “pain”? Or is it just a yellow flag: Be aware.

Take care.

Keep moving.


Every Sunday morning I sat 65 minutes on a smooth, cold pew next to Grandma. Pastor Garanger talked and gesticulated, sometimes mumbled with his eyes closed. Sometimes Grandpa’s breath would catch in his throat to jerk him awake.

I sat still.

There was a lesson lost on me. And there was a lesson under that one: the sitting still.

The “stop your twitching”. The “pay attention”.

The “okay now: just go outside and play”.

Maybe nothing is really lost, since the world circles around in its lopsided orbit.

I’ve misplaced my glasses again.

And miscalculated again how much time it takes to do what I need to do in the morning and still make the train on time.

Some days coffee is fine on an empty stomach, some days I think it will turn me inside-out – days like today where the things on my to-do list crowd like cows at the barn door and I can’t get out in front of them to get started.

Leonard is having a clinging morning. His snout repeatedly knocking my arm away from the keyboard.

His sweet eyes pleading – he has a hard time keeping track of the days. Covid has sent his schedule in a spin, too. I tell him it’s Monday – like that means anything to him. Treat? Distraction. I hear his nails on the hardwood floor as he goes into the other room sniffing for the peanut butter hidden in a rubber ball.

I’ll run after the morning meeting – along the creek near the school. I’ll wash-up, teach two classes, and let all the other obligations fall into place according to the world’s ticking clock.

Then catch the train to the hospital for a little procedure. The doctor told me to take some pain reliever before I get there. Choosing pain relievers for a “little procedure” when you’re already on blood thinners is a little complex.

I’ve poured two shots of vodka into a flask and am hoping the train isn’t crowded.

It’s so much easier to swallow pills.

This is a fair amount of nothing. But sometimes just a ticking off of the to-do list is meaningful for its own sake.

Normalizing.

(Or The Weight of Garments in the Pull of the Stream)

When we moved into this house,
the old woman was digging turnips from the ground
on a Sunday morning.

She would cut back the rhododendrons
when they began to block the walkway
to her front door. She would sort the decorative stones
blown into the flower beds. She would pull nets like swaddling
over the young fruit-

She told me she never enjoyed gardening before
she inherited the work from her husband.

Another four years, she tilled and planted
the small kitchen garden –
She tended and harvested. She died
in winter – now two years ago.

She’d slipped on the deck after pulling the last
of the year’s carrots from the ground
with her bare hands. It’s quickly done, the moss
growing so quickly over the boards from the end of summer.

They wrapped her light, bird-body
in a housecoat and drove her across town
where she floated away in a soft bed, in clean sheets.

On Sunday I’ll rouse myself to work in the garden.
I’ll sort the bark from the marble stones we brought in this summer
to surround the new, blue ceramic birdbath. I’ll check
the hedgehog’s water bowl we keep hidden in the holly hedge.

I’ll clear out the beds of my new, little greenhouses –
crowded with the sweet potato shoots that never took hold
and the blood-veined leaves of beetroots that are rotting
into the soil, preparing it for next spring.

I’ll try again

while the new neighbors park their car
where the old woman’s strawberries were. They’re talking
of paving over the yard entirely
since they like big gatherings at the week-ends.

The late autumn rain runs off the roofs of both our houses
and flows into the ditch that runs down the middle of the driveway –
leaving wayward stones, dead leaves, and plastic wrappers
in the trap.

There is still that to clear out on a Sunday morning.

Probably not the ideal veggie to greens ratio for parsnip?