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Thinking About Thinking

I was always a weird kid. When I was in sixth grade I memorized the entirety of Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven, simply because I loved it. This is a poem that is not only bleak and dark, but one that contains 18 stanzas. I still remember the look of befuddlement on my parents’ faces one night at dinner when I insisted on reciting it, line for line.

There was something about the poem that spoke to me, that addressed this feeling I had inside that there was something more to the world than what I was seeing around me.

By the time I was in ninth grade I was pouring through books on the metaphysical, delving into Wicca, attempting to find my way into lucid dreams, and reading Deepak Chopra. My favorite shop in town was the local new age store, and I would spend hours there after school, shuffling through the book shelf, running my fingers across the beautifully colored stones that were so carefully laid out in the little trays alongside candles and golden statues of the Buddha.

I didn’t know what any of it meant. I still don’t really.

The thing is that no matter how attracted to this stuff I’ve always been, I’ve nevertheless remained quite rooted in the material and physical world. I like television and social media and shopping and going out with my friends. I don’t have any real desire to sit in lotus position in a mountain in Tibet. I’d much prefer to giggle over a beer with a girlfriend while discussing a potential haircut or a funny story I heard about someone.

But again and again, I run up against these feelings inside of me that relentlessly tell me that there is so much more to this life than the things we do in our daily lives. Sometimes I feel as though there is an invisible curtain right in front of me, and if I could just figure out a way to pull it aside, I’d see something very different than what I think I’m looking at when I wake up in the morning.

I’m struggling in my life right now, for a thousand reasons I can’t get into here just yet.

In order to get through this period I’ve been doing all the things I always do. I’ve been spending time with friends, drinking wine and laughing. I’ve been immersing myself in motherhood and all the wonders and fierce trials that come with it.

But at the end of the night when I’m alone again with my thoughts, I feel that old, familiar tug. That there is something more to all this.

And that I have to find it.

So I’ve been going to yoga a lot too. Meditating a lot. Reading a lot of books that make that invisible curtain seem just a little bit more visible.

Most of all, I’ve been thinking. About thinking.

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From the moment I wake up in the morning my thoughts come in torrents and streams. Long strands of fears and doubts and insecurities, thoughts that make me queasy and tired, thoughts that flood all the way through my physical self.

Until I remember. Until I remind myself.

That they are just thoughts. That I am thinking.

Glennon Doyle Melton wrote a great post about meditating this week. She captured my experience of it so perfectly.

I tried meditation in high school, again in college, and then not again until my late twenties, when I was once again feeling desperate and alone and overwhelmed by that tugging to look at things differently.

For a time when I was twenty-eight, I took private meditation instruction from a woman here in Los Angeles. I went to her apartment once a week and we sat on little pillows, facing each other. We closed our eyes and we meditated for 15, 20, sometimes 45 minutes.

At first I fought and fought against it. The thoughts that streamed through my head became even louder when I tried to sit there quietly. I grew frustrated and annoyed and disheartened.

But over and over again my teacher instructed me to go back, to keep trying.

And one day I found this little space in the middle of all those thoughts. As Glennon so beautifully wrote, it was like the thoughts were still there, but I was somewhere above them. I was no longer attached to them. I no longer needed them to exist. I was still me, but without all the things I usually think make me me.

I’ve only ever been able to occupy that little space for fleeting moments of time, but the amazing part is that, in that magical space, time seems pretty irrelevant. What is more relevant is the notion that all these thoughts running through my head all day, aren’t who I am.

That piece by piece, I can let go of the hopes and the heartbreak, the loss and the joy, and I still exist. For tiny, tiny moments, I get to bask in some kind of wonderment that I don’t have to cling so hard to what I see around me.

The first thing that happens in meditation is that we start to see what’s happening. Even though we still run away and we still indulge, we see what we’re doing clearly. One would think that our seeing it clearly would immediately make it just disappear, but it doesn’t. So for quite a long time, we just see it clearly. To the degree that we’re willing to see our indulging and our repressing clearly, they begin to wear themselves out. Wearing out is not exactlyt he same as going away. Instead a  wider, more generous, more enlightened perspective arises. Pema Chodron, When Things Fall Apart

As I typed out the above I got stuck on Chodron’s use of the word generous. I want to be more generous with myself, allow myself to be all that I am right now, rather than struggling through every hour trying to be something else, someone else, some place else.

Here goes nothing.

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Objects of Loss

In the months and weeks following my mother’s death, my father and I carefully pulled apart the pieces of her material life. We sorted through her closet, threw away her cosmetics, gave away her cookbooks, her shoes, tossed away the little scraps of paper that ran rampant on her desk, her looping handwriting cascading across them in messy lines. We threw away the mail that came for her, and stored away other things like her wedding dress and her jewelry. We even found a new home for her beloved pet parrot Norman.

It was one of the most outwardly painful things I’d ever experienced, this dismantling of a loved one’s physical life. I’ll never forget staring into a dresser drawer that contained only a wide assortment of her shoulder pads, or the time I came across a little box in her bathroom that contained strands of her hair that she’d collected as it fell out from chemo.

Other things I relished in their vanishment; using the last bar of soap she had scrubbed herself with, running it across my own body as my tears mingled with the shower water. Defrosting and reheating sauces she had made and stored away, using the pens from her desk until their ink ran dry.

As for the things I kept, they were numerous. I wore her clothes, her jewelry, kept her notebooks and high school year books. I even still have one her plants, kept alive all these last eighteen years through moves and boyfriends and other losses.

If I could have kept everything I would have. If I somehow could have left that house intact, exactly as it had been the day she died, I would have. I would like nothing more than to be able to wander through those rooms yet, to sleep where she had slept, to run my fingers across the nightgown she’d left sitting out on the little bench at the foot of her bed.

But I couldn’t. None of us can do that.

About two years after she died I was visiting Atlanta with my father and he took me along on an errand to a consignment shop where he had placed most of our valuable furniture and art. I was twenty by then and I wandered the cavernous store, finding myself startled each time I came across a sofa or a painting that had once hung in our living room, but that had now become part of an imagined living room set designed to appeal to a passing stranger.

By the time I had toured the entire shop, noting each and every thing that had once belonged to the life I had formerly known, I was in tears. My father was at the register, going over a detailed list with the manager and I could feel my breath coming in heaves, could feel the world collapsing inwardly around me.

Just before I turned to walk out the door I noticed a large ceramic Mexican serving bowl that my mother had used a hundred times when I was growing up. I walked over to it and picked it up gently in my hands, knowing that I would not set it down again until it was in my own home. I turned to my father and I saw in him the same knowing he’d had when I showed up one afternoon in tenth grade with an abandoned kitten I’d found. He knew that there would be no arguing with me, and so I stood there patiently, tears streaming down my cheeks, as he found the item on the manager’s list and crossed it out.

I flew back to New York City later that week, that giant ceramic bowl sitting in my lap for the duration of the flight. I found a place for it in my tiny East Village kitchen that had no business housing such a large object, and I dragged it out to California with me when I moved here ten years ago. I took it with me to Chicago too, and then back here again to Los Angeles two years ago.

Over the last fifteen years I’ve used it almost once a month, making my mother’s macaroni and cheese, or her New Year’s Day Hoppin’ John, each and every time marveling that this object almost belonged to someone else.

Last Tuesday, in a slip of my soapy hand, it fell into the sink and broke.

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I still can’t get over it.

I can’t even bring myself to throw away the pieces. They’ve been sitting in the laundry room for days now, waiting to go out with the trash, and today when I was headed out the back, garbage in my hands, I could not take it with me. Instead I moved the pile of pieces to my office.

I know that I will eventually have to let them go, but not just yet.

I know this about everything.

Yet still. I cling.

We are like children building a sand castle. We embellish it with beautiful shells, bits of driftwood, and pieces of colored glass. The castle is ours, off limits to others. We’re willing to attack if others threaten to hurt it. Yet despite all our attachment, we know that the tide will inevitably come in and sweep the sand castle away. The trick is to enjoy it fully but without clinging, and when the time comes, let it dissolve back into the sea. – Pema Chodron

I’m working on it, Pema. We all are.

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Upcoming Reading!

I’m doing a reading and signing next month in the NYC area, to benefit the incredible Bereavement Center of Westchester. I think it’s going to be a really special evening. Would love to see you there!

You can find the complete details here.

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