Thursday, September 29, 2016

Quieting the Unruly Mind

It is now just over a year since I retired.

I think back on my working days and one thing I remember is that each working moment never held my full attention.  For each moment I was working on the task at hand, I was, in the back of my mind, either revisiting an action I had just taken or was thinking about what was next on my list of things to accomplish.

I never fully appreciated the content of my work days.  I was bored by them, sometimes indifferent to them, sometimes challenged but more likely than not, just never fully present.

On my walk in the park this morning, as I stood near a beautiful fountain, surrounded by freshly cut emerald green lawns while the sun warmed my face and the breeze tickled the leaves, I realized I was thinking about my cellar stairs.  To be more exact, I was thinking about how I was going to go about putting up some railings.

Cellar stairs?  Railings?  I realized I had dragged my work day mentality right into retirement.

We have all heard about "being in the moment" and the "the sacred now" and I have paid lip service to the concepts.  Now I was confronted by the fact that that was all I had done; paid lip service.

I took a deep breath and decided to settle into the moment.  I sat on the edge of the sun warmed granite and placed my hand against the mica speckled stone.  I could feel the rough texture against my palm and noticed how the mica caught and held the sunlight.

I saw how the water sprays painted a rainbow against the deep blue sky and heard the distant call of mourning doves.

I felt the utter sweetness of the moment.....but then, well, I was back to thinking about the stairs.

I told myself the time to think about the stairs is when I am working on the stairs.  I was very, very stern with myself!

As I stood to continue my walk I kept bringing my focus back to what I was doing at the moment.  I would bring my attention solely to what was before me.  I noticed I could hold appreciation and focus for as long as I was consciously trying to but the moment I let go of trying to focus....... my mind was adrift to random thoughts.

Does it matter?  I think it does.  I don't want to live an unnoticed life.  By that I mean I want to be the "noticer" .....I don't want to pass by the beauty of the world because I'm composing a mental "to do" list.

It is just mind garbage.

So, for now my focus is going to be on bringing myself back to the moment I am in, moment by moment.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

"Fast food......FAST FOOD?  Where is it going?  What's the hurry?  I'll tell you what fast food is, it is the fast track to heaven".

These were the words spoken to me a week ago by my mysterious Chinese stranger that I had spoken to in the park  almost two months ago. (September 23 post)

I have told so many people about this man and of course with my telling over time he has become more and more mystical and mysterious.

I have walked in the park every day for years and only met him that one time so part of me was even beginning to wonder about our encounter.

That morning, before I headed to the park, I met a new friend for coffee at McOffice.  She is an elderly woman who lives about a mile up my street.  When our conversation turned to health, I, of course, brought this man up.  She was struck by the story but I swear I saw some hesitancy in her acceptance that this was a real person.

"And you only saw him this one time, and you walk in the park every day?" she asked.

I just nodded at her and smiled and changed the subject.

As I drove to the park I kept him in mind and told myself I would see him again. I held him very clearly in mind and told myself that if he had more to offer me and if it was meant to be that I would see him this very day.

I changed my walking route a bit and ended up walking down a hill that parallels the park's smallest pond.  As I got close to the pond I saw a man in the distance walking toward me.  As he grew closer the rising sun bathed my face in light and pretty much blinded me as he passed.  Was it him or not?  His general build was the same but I did not see his face at all.  I was not about to turn and run after him......too "stalkish" for me.
Instead I just relaxed and told myself that if it was him and if I was meant to meet with him I would see him at the fountain.

I continue my walk enjoying the bright sun and crunch of leaves.

As I rounded a corner the fountain came into sight.  I continued walking and within a moment a man entered the fountain area from a side path.  It was my wise stranger.

This park is very large, we were walking in opposite directions and his walking speed is about twice the speed of mine.....and yet we met.

I smiled and said "Hello!"

He smiled back but I could see there was no recognition in his face at all.  None.

"We spoke two months or so ago, you told me so many things that I found helpful.  I'm glad I got a chance to see you again to thank you".

Recognition dawned on his face and his smile grew broader and he said, "So, that was you?"

I nodded back as he asked "Do you mind if I do jumping jacks?"

It was a cold morning and I was wearing a winter coat, a scarf and gloves.  He was wearing jeans and an oxford shirt.

While busy with his jumping jacks he smiled again and nodded toward the trees and their falling leaves.  "We should follow nature.  It's the time now to slow down, become quiet, rest.  Think of a bear.  A bear slows down and sleeps all winter.  It does not keep hunting and eating".

Although I could understand his point I reminded him that we were not bears and that most of us had jobs or responsibilities that had to be tended to throughout the winter.

"Yes" he agreed, "I know it isn't the same, but still, we need to take cues from nature".

He then spoke for a while about Western vs. Eastern approaches to relaxation.  He thought that those of us in the West do not have the same appreciation for nature as those from the East (talking globally).  He said that he finds music to be what relaxes people in the United States rather than an appreciation for nature.

Our conversation meandered like a soothing brook through topics of food (he is vegan and anti fast food), exercise (he believes in movement between 10 and noon and 3 and 5) and the sanctity of personal space.

"Do you ever throw your clothes on the floor?" he queried.

I wanted to look over my shoulder to make sure my mother wasn't standing there before I answered.  She has been gone for some time but I still sometimes get the feeling she is around keeping me on the straight and narrow.

"Well, I might let something drop to the floor for a moment or two". I said as I thought of my pajamas on the floor next to my bed.

"Don't do that!" He said with a sense of urgency.  "You must respect your clothes, they keep you warm.  Do you know how many people worked together just to get you your clothes?"

I have to admit I was a bit confused.  How could this be such an important topic; it was just clothes.

"For thousands of years people have worked to create clothing.  Someone had to first think of clothes.  Others had to create fabric.  Some created dyes.  Think of the people who dreamed up the machines in order to manufacture your clothes and then think of the people who built them.  What about the ones who operate the machines.  Someone packages your clothes and ships them.  Stores hold them for you.  You must respect your clothes because they represent thousands of years of thought, creation and cooperation".

He gestured to my coat and asked me where it was made.  I took it off, read the label and told him "China".

"You see?  You see?  At some point in time a woman in China was stitching your coat.  When she was done for the day she probably went home and tended to her family and her home chores.  Her hands, half a world away, the very hands that tend to her family, tend to your warmth."

For just a flicker of a moment I understood at a very deep level what he was offering.  The universality of his view and willingness to share it with me sent a calming sense of peace through me.

I smiled and nodded and then drove home to pick my pajamas up off the floor.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

In my chair yoga class we sit in a circle.  Because of the number of students it is a large circle.  The territorial nature of people dictates that we all end up in the same spot each class.  I have always studied the woman who sits across from me.

Her white hair is worn in dutch boy style with long bangs framing large, sad, brown eyes.  Her generous mouth has a perpetual downturn.  Her careful movements are slow and studied.

After a couple of weeks I began bringing her a chair when I grabbed mine.  (Goody two shoes gene).  She would give me a slow nod but a smile never crossed her face.

During class I could not help myself; I always kept half an eye on what she was doing.  I was violating a very basic premise of yoga class; "Stay on your own mat."  This is both literal and more importantly, figurative.

Her movements were barely noticeable.  Today in class we were flexing our bare feet, heel to toe and then up on our toes.  Her feet barely moved and when we were going up on our toes her feet remained completely flat.

My mind wandered to what motivates her to come to class.  She certainly didn't appear to be trying to do anything.

Today at the end of class I brought my chair back to the front of the room and when I returned for my mat I noticed she was bending over and picking up my mat.  Our eyes met and she said, "I'm just thanking you for bringing me a chair every week".

I was surprised and thanked her.  I then said to her, "I noticed you weren't in class on Tuesday, were you ill?"

She replied that she had been at the eye doctors because she is going blind.

What do you say to that?  I just told her I was sorry to hear that.

We ended up leaving the building at the same time.

"You had better not walk with me." she said.  "It takes me forever to get to my car.  I have two hip replacements, two knee replacements and my toes just have titanium rods, I can't bend them at all."

She looked down at the ground and blinked slowly before she finished with "That is why I am the dumbest one in the class."

If the human heart was capable of actually breaking in two, mine would have.

My compassion was coupled with the shame I felt for having questioned why she was there. It made me think of every child who suffers through being picked last or shunned at a lunch table. I thought of the homeless begging on the street and seemingly healthy young people handing in their food stamps. It was a complex mix of emotions that led me to an internal vow to never judge again.

I looked at her and said, "You have a limited range of movement, that is true, but it has nothing to do with being dumb.   You are an inspiration".

I think I saw a hint of a grateful smile.

As we parted ways we both waved and said "See you in class next week".

I know that I will be seeing with new eyes.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

The sun warmed my shoulders as I took slow deliberate steps down a blue stone walk.  My focus was complete as I thought about proper placement of my foot, heel to toe, shifting weight, perfect balance with each step.

"You are never going to burn any calories that way!!" yelled a very strident voice from somewhere behind me.

I stopped, shaded my eyes and turned to see who was calling out to me.

A woman my age strode toward me with purposeful, energetic strides.  Her permed blonde hair bushed out from the sides of her baseball cap which shaded her piercing brown eyes.

"I'm practicing my Tai Chi walk." I replied. "I'm taking a class at the "Y".

I could feel her appraising me; her penetrating gaze taking my measure.

"You're paying someone to teach you to walk?" she asked in amazement.

Her raised brows and incredulous tone made me laugh.  I went on to explain "It's good for balance and for feeling grounded."

"You want to feel grounded?.....forget about balance and just fall down; you can't get any more grounded than that!"

I burst out laughing at her quick wit but made a mental note to cross Tai Chi off a list of possible conversational topics.

"I'm Lorraine." she said with an outstretched hand.  "Nice to meet you."

We exchanged pleasantries for a bit and I came to learn that Lorraine had "More bad habits than you can count, and I'm keeping them all!"

We parted ways at the Japanese Tea House.  I told her I was going to sit and reflect a bit....... sitting and reflecting were not on Lorraine's agenda!

My walk continued down a wooded path past the entrance to the Wild Flower Walk.  A very small, very elderly woman was exiting the walk with her weathered, petite hand held to her head.  Her chin was down and I could see the top of her head as she shook it slowly, back and forth.

"Are you okay" I asked as I walked toward her.

"Son of a .....BITCH!" she yelled, "An acorn just fell and knocked me in the head."

The unexpected words caused some laughter to bubble up inside but I did my best to contain it.  I kept looking at her, so small, so old, so blunt.

She dropped her hand and looked right into my eyes.  "Have kids?".

I nodded in reply.

She took a deep breath and said "I have two.  Both girls.  One is very successful and beautiful.  The other one came out a bit funny."  She tapped her head with her index finger as as she described her second daughter as coming out "funny".

"She walked at nine months and became bow-legged.  Now she was funny in the head and bow-legged."

I just continued to look at her and nodded slowly wherever it seemed appropriate.

"Their father took off.  Good riddance."  Her hands traveled flat palmed to her chest as she said "I took care of them.  I made a plan and I worked with her. Every day I worked.  And you know what?"

"What?" I asked.

"She is perfect now."  Her lined face creased into joy as she smiled a sweetly loving motherly smile and finished with, "And I did that, me!"

I smiled back, no words needed between mothers.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

I once knew an elderly woman who would gather up left over bread crumbs from the fish she baked and save them "just in case".

She was a small round woman whose salt and pepper hair was always pulled back into a tight bun.  Her flowery house dresses fell in voluminous folds, almost reaching the tops of her sensible black shoes.

Once I looked out my window and saw her clothes line strung with tea bags.  One clothespin per bag. She would dry them in the sun for a couple of hours because "A teabag is good for three dunkings".

I am going back thirty years in time.  I was in my early thirties and she was pushing ninety.

Her husband was a slight man with a roguish white mustache.  He always wore "summer white" and a panama hat.

With their frugal ways one would think they were on a shoe string budget but they were as wealthy as Scrooge McDuck.

Their summer home in the Berkshires was nestled in rolling fields and bordered with untouched, pristine woods.  Fifteen rooms had been lovingly restored with meticulous care.  Mr. Santos' library was all burnished wood, oriental carpets, leather chairs and large windows that framed the sweeping hills.  It was my favorite room in their house.

I lived in their "servant's quarters" across the street with my husband and two children.  Our quarters had four bedrooms, two baths, a field stone fireplace and beautiful views that were available in each room through wide windows.  A pond dotted the back field with silver in the winter and blue every other season.

In exchange for a ridiculously low rent (100.00 per month) my husband at the time and I would tend to the lawns and open the house in the spring.

Why am I thinking of them today?

Aluminum foil.

I am out.  I have a casserole to cover and I am out.  Aluminum foil is one of those things I hate to buy; absolutely hate to buy.

I'll bet Mrs. Santos never ran out of aluminum foil.  I bet she had only one box her entire life.

I am incorporating a more frugal life style and I am now, before any purchase, I going to ask myself "wwmsd?" (What would Mrs. Santos do?)

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

On the curved lower path of the park, near the ever turning water wheel, I met a most intriguing man.

He had passed me earlier, his stride and enthusiasm outpacing mine.

We now were face to face and I smiled and said "Hello".

He gave me back the widest smile imaginable, threw his arms wide and said, "Do you feel it?"

I took a breath, held my smile and said, "I'm not sure".  I felt it was important to not give the wrong answer.

He spun around slowly, arms wide, head back and said "Life, the trees, the sun, the earth, don't you feel it?"

Now my smile widened and I said, "Yes, I do."

"It is the morning light." he explained; "The morning light signifies life and vitality.  If you begin your day with the morning sun the rest of your day will be filled with peace."

I nodded in agreement and this encouraged him to continue.

"In my culture it is important to begin your day walking barefoot on the earth." He pointed to the ground and continued with "Here, you cannot do that, there are too many ways to damage your feet."

He was Chinese and has been in this country for almost twenty years.  I was thinking he was around 35.  He was extremely fit looking; relatively tall and slender.  His close cropped hair was jet black save for a few strands of white.

Just then a big eyed chipmunk scurried past.  He studied it as it passed and then spoke again.

"I'm a vegan.  I look at that chipmunk and see its two eyes and know it has a soul."

I continued to look at him, silently waiting for him to continue.

"When I was a young man I ate meat.  I ate sugar and drank soda but I paid a price."  His smile faltered a bit and I could tell he was having a private moment so did not ask him about the price he paid.  Instead I said, "You said 'when I was a young man' old are you?  You look like a young man now."

He laughed and said, "You guess".

Well, I already thought he was around 35 and when people ask me to guess their age I always subtract a few years out of politeness so I said "Around 30".

He smiled proudly and said "I am almost 60."

I truly was stunned.  It wasn't just the lack of lines or sags in his face, it was his whole manner, his whole way of being that led me to think of him as young.  He had that freedom of movement, the natural physical grace of the young.

"I'm shocked." I replied.  "Trust me, I believe you but it is hard to accept, you just don't look it."

He spoke earnestly for the next 10 minutes.  I cannot remember his exact words but to sum it up; this man meditates every morning after he walks in the morning light.  He also walks in the evening light but never in the midday sun.  He said something about the midday sun draining energy.  He drinks a lot of pure water and has been a vegan since 1994.

"When I first stopped eating meat I felt as though I was constantly hungry.  It took me almost a year for my body to adjust.  Now if I try to eat meat my body rebels; it wont accept the meat."  As he told me this he touched his gathered fingers to his mouth and shook his head from side to side.

"You must give up meat, sugar, dairy and start meditating every day."  He said this with such earnestness and sincerity I found myself shaking my head "yes".

We parted ways, he left with a happy step and jaunty air and I left with deep thoughts and questions.

Friday, September 18, 2015

I have always been a solitary walker.  I like being with my own thoughts and being able to set my own pace.

Most of the walkers at the park walk in pairs.  I see them chatting as they saunter and it makes me smile to see that but I have never been envious of it.

Today as I rounded the walkway near the waterfall and duck pond another lone walker began to pass me.  She stopped and looked back at me and then smiled and said, "I haven't seen the blue heron yet."

A few days ago I had told her about "big blue" and told her to watch for him.

I stopped to talk to her for a few minutes.

"I haven't seen him in a few days." I replied.  "Maybe he has changed his eating schedule."

She grinned and rested her hand on her stomach.  "I've changed my eating schedule." She said with a laugh.

She went on to tell me that she has lost 25 pounds in two months.  

That got my attention.

"Now, don't get me wrong." She said with a "stop in the name of love" hand gesture.  "I still eat my candy."  She had a look in her eyes that made me want to promise I would never stand between her and her candy.

She continued with, "My husband loves a chubby woman so he brings me candy and Munchos all the time."  She got a far away look in her eyes as she said, "I do love my Munchos......"

She told me she began walking two months ago.  Every two weeks she increased the amount of time she walks.  She is now up to one hour a day and plans to begin jogging soon.

Her main concern is her health.  She has a 23 year old, an 18 year old and now a 6 year old.  
She is unable to keep up with her 6 year old.  

"With the 25 pounds I have lost I can now kick the soccer ball with my little boy and soon I will try to ride a bike with him."  Her eyes shone with happy tears.  "Why don't you start walking with me?" she asked.

I immediately thought of all the reasons I would not want to walk with her, or anyone.  But then I thought of our mutual love of the park, the fact that we both have children we love and weight to lose and health to gain and realized friendships have been forged on less.

"I'll see you tomorrow." I said with a smile.

She went her way and I went mine.  At the top of the stone stairs I took a right and continued on my way to the fountain.  I always sit on a particular bench to watch and listen to the water for a bit.

As I sat down I noticed a bouquet of sunflowers.  Five sunflowers bound with twine, with morning dew glistening on the golden petals.  

They were lovely.

I looked around wondering who left them.  There was not a soul in sight.  I picked them up and could see the stems were healed over so they had not been recently cut.

My mind drifted to the day before when I was cleaning my bedroom.  I had picked up my royal blue pitcher with the intricate white design as I dusted my bureau top.  When my older brother died his biggest customer had sent me this vase filled with sunflowers.  It was beautiful.  I set the pitcher down and told myself I should get some sunflowers soon.

And here they were.

I looked around again.  The park was empty.

In Chinese symbolism, sunflowers mean long life and good luck.  Their color signifies vitality,  intelligence and happiness.  

I whispered a "thank you" to the universe and claimed them as mine.