On my way to get a haircut, a light snow was falling and only this tiny piece of light shone in the sky, like a piece of bread that has broken off the loaf, and as soon as I saw it, the clouds had already begun to swallow it. The day was the like the last, doomed day on earth, only it was the second of December. Inside the shop, lights blazed and the stylists smiled as they greeted me. I said, “Good morning,” then qualified it. “I don’t know whether it’s a good morning.” The older stylist had a sense of humor. “Well, it’s a morning.” The younger one led me to a chair and proceeded to cut my hair slowly, clipping it up, combing it out, measuring carefully. No one had ever cut my hair with this much – was it patience or trouble? Was she taking her time because she wanted to do a perfect job? Or was she unsure of herself, new to the profession? She looked young enough to be in high school. As she worked, I admired her low, black boots, and wondered where I could get a similar pair. I listened to the radio. The DJs were playing a Christmas song backwards and callers had to guess the title. The song sounded like “Frosty the Snowman,” but it wasn’t. Three callers missed the prize. Then a woman on her phone said, “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer,” and won the tickets.
A man came in. I never saw him because I would have had to turn my head around; he was in a chair on the other side of the aisle. He mentioned that his son had come home from college for Thanksgiving. He spoke mostly about the traffic around Philadelphia. His drive to collect his son had taken hours. “It’s not worth it. I would pay for Harrisburg.” What he meant, no doubt, was using the airport in Harrisburg where traffic is lighter, paying extra for the flight. He said nothing about his son, just vented about the time he spent on the road, and I could certainly understand. But the man made me think of how we miss the important things because we’re struggling with the mundane. We pick up a family member who’s come a long way. Then we remember the traffic, not the visit. Half my Christmas memories when the kids were young are of logistics. How were all the presents going to get wrapped? At what midnight hour would they get delivered? What if someone peeked and ruined our efforts at playing Santa? Meanwhile there was always a dirty floor to sweep or counter to wipe in preparation for guests.
I don’t know whether the mundane destroys us and keeps us from really living or whether it protects us. Could we bear love and closeness without distractions? Would we burn our wings in the sun? I think the hardest kind of spiritual life is not the one of monks and nuns who take vows of silence and work hard all day for charity. It’s not the life of a pastor who has to give up every good holiday for his or her congregation. It’s not the life of a yogi.
The hardest kind of spiritual life is the one that’s plunged right into the worst kind of busy-ness, the thickest tedium. And it’s true that sometimes the distractions keep us from drowning in sentimentality. But I think we have to be brave people and navigate this most difficult path, risk the raw emotion that comes of it. I don’t know exactly how to do this without losing my balance. I think it has less to do with separating myself off and more to do with a constant floating above the mundane -- just a little – breathing in a space that I keep clear of distractions, asking what’s really important at the moment. It has to do with giving up numbness for vulnerability and the rewards that come of it.
I am told that Celtic languages have no word for December. The people just call the month “Christmas.” If I consider a holiday that lasts an entire month, I have plenty of time to practice living with spirit in the midst of fighting traffic, running errands, clocking in at work, sorting mail, etc. I want to be that dad complaining about the chaos on the road, but in the same breath rejoicing to see his son again. I want to be awake and be constantly making memories that include hugging people, building each other up with words, bringing out the best in others. I want the patience of the stylist who takes so long to cut my hair that the snow turns into light mist and then stops altogether.
I love a lot of people, but I don’t always tell them this in an unhurried, sincere way. So... Pick three people, remind them of their best traits and tell them how much I love having them in my life.
Just for this one day:
Cultivate emptiness. Come to the table without your troubles and worries, without your usual self loathing. Leave your resentments behind. Leave your fear of gaining weight or losing control. Set no goals involving food. This is not the day for saying: “I can have only a half portion of X. I can’t have any Z.” Don’t bring your food issues to the table. (Let your body tell you how much you should eat, and be content and satisfied with its wisdom.)
Cultivate fullness. With your mind free from obsessions over food, get busy collecting. This is a day for gathering memories. Circulate. Ask questions, beg for stories, take pictures, accumulate hugs. Remember that we’re not going to live forever. Keep reminding yourself, in the presence of all the guests, what makes you grateful.
“As you grow older, you will discover that you have two hands, one for helping yourself, the other for helping others.”
The weather forecast doesn’t match the scene outside my window. It clearly states “rain,” but somehow snow steadily falls, dusting the rooftops, the yards and the leaves that still cling to the trees. At first it melted on the road, but now the asphalt shimmers with a coating of crystal. This alleged “rain” doesn’t work for me. It’s going to meaning cleaning off the van and giving lectures to my teenage son who’s never driven in snow. It’s going to mean boots.
If I think about it, I’m a little angry. It’s still fall. There’s not supposed to be the kind of snow that sticks to the roads, and I didn’t have a chance to prepare. I know it’s nobody’s fault. Meteorology can’t always be right. But now I have a choice. I can stay with this frustration or ask the critical question: What would I have done differently if I had known that snow was coming? I might have made plans to cancel the two things I was going to do today. But I wouldn’t have known for sure how good or bad the roads would be. I would have needed to wait and see. In other words, I would have based today’s decisions on the present moment, which is exactly what I have now right in front of me as I watch the snow sifting down.
My wanting to have known weather today alerts me to a tendency I have of not trusting the present moment and of doubting my ability to adapt to it. It teaches me to keep my energy where it matters, which is the place where I am right now. Probably the reason I fear I won’t be able to deal with the present is that I’m constantly throwing my effort into an imaginary future where it is essentially wasted. I know what to do in the snow. The fact that I didn’t have 24 hours to think about it is a gift. It’s real preparation for winter: practicing an attitude that says I can cope with the present, but not with the unseen future.
No one can argue that it’s a beautiful day in late November. The sun is shining and the Japanese maple outside my window still holds onto its leaves. As they wither, they hint at purple, an uncommon shade, and I would love to look carefully at this color except the leaves also have a brittleness reminiscent of death. I don’t want to be reminded of dying. I’m hoping to feel more alive these days, and I want to know that I’ll have time to regain the thread of contentment that I have somehow dropped.
I look at the calendar on my desk and see a row of empty boxes – no work or school or dentist appointments around the Thanksgiving holiday. I would be celebratory, but I think instead of how time off can overwhelm me. Without a schedule imposed by institutions, I feel I should be accomplishing something, but instead I linger in bed or shuffle around the house looking for little tasks to pick at -- mail to sort, dishes to rinse, crumbs to wipe -- without undertaking any real, big projects. I feel as though I’m wasting my hours. I should enjoy the relaxation, but relaxing resembles doing nothing, and doing nothing makes me feel as though I’m walking on a narrow ledge thousands of meters above the ground. I should be enjoying my family, but when I talk to my sons or husband I have to quiet my mind first, and in doing so, a silence enters that shakes my center, as if a lack of sound could cause such strong vibrations.
I suspect that if I still were “doing” my eating disorder, I’d be distracted from all the emptiness. The hunger would bring me face to face with the stabilizing present, and the scale would provide me with evidence of accomplishment, as would the clothing in small sizes. There’s still time. I could start restricting again and add workouts to my routine. But I’m not sure I could trust the lies that an eating disorder tells: that a self-centered existence will make me happy, that a superficial system will cure deeper problems.
I think I would rather risk looking at the leaves of the Japanese maple in spite of the death they hold. I would rather feel the intoxication of the purple even as it points to the bleakness of winter. I prefer to do the exercise the elementary school teachers make kids do every year. What are you thankful for? And if I say, “A few days off to relax with my family,” will I be lying? Or will I be making a promise to keep looking for the thread of contentment, which often reveals itself to heart full of willingness and gratitude?
Who am I? It's tempting to tell you what I do for a living and other boring biographical details, but I'll say this: My name is Laura. I am a woman in service to the unseen, namely the higher good.