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?

An evening run. Because
the morning slipped
between a coffee cup
and God-knows-what.
And I need to run.

I’ve showered now and pulled on a wool bra and cashmere lounge pants. There’s nothing like cashmere lounge pants. I own one pair because I stumbled over them – misplaced in rack in an H&M- marked down to affordable.

Is this what it feels like to be wealthy? Wrapped in cashmere?

I had an angora sweater in high school. I bought it myself with the money I’d earned from my first job – selling hot dogs at the local rally-cross track. I knew it was out-of-place in my life: it shrank in the first wash.

But now. … Why don’t I always dress like hugs? I’m a grown woman and should be in full control of these things. I want to be the woman who empties her wardrobe and dresser drawers of all the fast fashion clothes, and fills them with nothing but quality fabrics in neutral colors that tell the world she definitely has all of her soft, yellow ducks in a row.

When I was a teenager we didn’t have ducks. But we had finches in bamboo cages in our mobile home. Some in the living room, some in the my mother’s bedroom in the back of the house. And they would sing to each other. Pitifully.

They make these small bamboo nests to put in the bamboo cages so finches will lay perfect little eggs. We had one hatch once. Have you ever seen a soft, naked, newly-hatched finch? It burns in your mind when it is dead on the newspaper tray at the bottom of the cage.

My point is… I’ve never had my ducks on a row.

These cashmere pants were marked “sleepwear”. Are there really women who sleep in cashmere? I sleep in cotton exercise pants that are too napped to wear in public anymore.

I feel guilty wearing cashmere around the house. It seems decadent. But they were marked “sleepwear” and I wonder if I wear them out (you know, feeling all elegant-like) people with think I’m an idiot for wearing my pj’s to dinner?

I wear them for yoga now. Kind of like dressing up for church. Not for the Holy Spirit, mind you – but for Buddhist idea that we should enjoy the pleasures of the present moment so long as we do so without clinging. And I have no illusion that these cashmere pants will survive the wash more than a few times.

At any rate. Here I sit in bed. Leonard curled beside me, dreaming of chasing hares – small, inaudible barks puffing his cheeks. I’ll have to wake him to send him to his own bed before I turn in for the night.

E. is offshore for a few more days. He may as well be on the moon. And only half the moon is visible tonight.

It’s been raining all week and the lake has flooded its usual banks. The bench roses weirdly from the water, and I stopped to take a photograph. For a moment I thought I’d stop and sit there for a while, watching the moon. But then a man came walking with his two schnauzers, and I was worried he’d think me insane.

And I was wearing my new shoes.

So… there’s that, at least: new, serious-ugly running shoes.

I’m that kind of woman.

It seems that the one lesson I teach year after year – regardless of the academic subject – is that there is a world of difference between consequences and punishment. There are days when I think I could write a book on the issue – and there are days I need to write one only to remind myself.

I am not sure if it is a fact that there are more articles about Sartre flying around the internet right now, or if they just catch my attention these days.

It doesn’t matter really. What matters is that I make the time to pay attention to why things capture my attention.

I have a group of postcards that I bought years ago when I was working with PEN. Each card pairs an article from The Universal Declaration of Human Rights with an illustration by Octavio Roth.

This morning I glanced over at the shelf and noticed the card on top was about the right to assemble peacefully. I laughed out loud when I noticed that this morning I’d spontaneously interpreted the illustration as people using their arms to measure for appropriate social distancing.

I still find that the hardest part of being an adult is accepting responsibility for my choices. Which, to a very large degree, does boil down to nothing more than understanding the difference between consequences and punishment. It’s so much easier to blame an authority figure for the “injustices” we have to suffer. And speaking for myself, I reach for these powerful authorities in direct, inverse proportion to the pettiness of the inconvenience. If I didn’t make my bed this morning, I can wind my way around to the result of an oppression from my workplace: I was awake all night brooding about a student, and the school administration expects too much from me in my 43 hour work-week. I’m being punished for caring too much. I should find another job so that I can get my life together.

If anything, I’m a creative person.

I’m genuinely surprised by how often I catch myself manifesting scapegoats for what I choose to do – when the consequences don’t align with my idealized life. And what really concerns me is that there are so many times I don’t catch myself.

Last night I forgot social distancing while taking part in a performance workshop. I immediately starting thinking about how difficult it all is: one set of rules for the home, one for the classroom, one for the spa, one for performing workshops. It surely must be the fault of some committee somewhere spitting out complex guidelines too difficult for the average person to store and retrieve while going through their day.

No.

The second article on this particular postcard states that, “No one may be compelled to belong to an association.”

I’m going to let myself off the hook for some associations until I learn some techniques to keep these guidelines in place. No one is making me do anything.

Or not do anything.