Looking Forward, Eyes Closed

If we were heroes, my son Henry and I would have the same super power.

He and his dad toured the East Coast by car this summer. Before they left, Henry made a note of a comic book store in New Jersey he wanted to see that is the basis for a reality television show.

During most of the drive there, Henry insisted he was going to wind up on television. And his dad kept reminding him, the chances of that were slim. The store might not be open. The odds that the show would be filming that day were not good; the odds that they would need Henry in the show were even slimmer. Yet, Henry, all full of 13-year-old hopefulness, kept insisting it was not only possible he would be on television, but that it was going to happen.

When they arrived at the store, there was activity out front, but it didn’t look open. Henry hopped out to ask what was going on. Guys at the store entrance told him the store was closed. Because they were getting ready to start filming. And, if Henry wanted to, he could be an extra. Did he ever!

Henry was positioned in the background, looking through comic books, while the main characters negotiated the value of movie memorabilia.

This story brought to mind another well-known family legend — about the time I made a tree branch destroy the picnic table, or at least that is the way it’s told. I had been insisting for weeks that we needed to replace that old, weather-worn, wooden table. My husband disagreed. And then one night, we heard a loud crash – a thunderstorm smashed a tree limb down the middle, removing all doubt. After that, I got my new picnic table. My kids joked that if I had a super-power it would be making things happen by saying they will.

I told Henry he must be the same way. Actually, it’s not so much a super-power, but an ability everybody has — not to control the weather or what time a comic book show will be filming, but to set the intention on what you want and go for an opportunity when you see one.

Setting the intention is one of my top three favorite pastimes. I’m never without a wish, whether it’s modest goal such as giving my next Toastmaster speech, or a grand one-step-back-from-the-impossible aspiration, such as moving my family cross-country for grad school. I enjoy setting a target in the future and breaking that down into steps that start now. As a result, I am in a nearly constant state of anticipation, which can be a lot of fun.

There is a balance though, and I am working on this lately, between planning ahead and making the most of what is in front of me now. A big chunk of happiness lies in appreciating the mundane, because that’s what every wish-come-true becomes once you get used to having it around. Every ‘there’ becomes ‘here’ if you stay awhile. This here is what you have.

So, what if, just for now, everything were exactly as it should be and there was nothing left to wish for? What would happen if I quieted the goal-setter in me and practiced thinking more like that?

About two months ago, I was browsing my city’s downtown marketplace and noticed a table where a nice lady was handing out flyers about the benefits of meditation. She was starting a class for beginners and asked if I would like to participate. I was in a suggestible mood. I said sure. A few days later, I was sitting cross-legged on the floor of a clean, bright room, with my hands folded just-so on my lap, slowly learning to breathe extra-deep.

At first, I found the physical posture uncomfortable and didn’t feel much else, but I sensed that I was onto something positive. So, I decided to trust the process for a while, ‘run the experiment’ as a friend of mine would say. I continued to attend the class weekly and to practice a few minutes daily, gradually increasing the time to about a half-hour. At home in the evenings, I sit half-lotus on a yoga mat, looking forward with my eyes closed, and set an alarm that sounds like crickets. As best I can, I focus on my breathing until they chirp.

Most days, my busy mind hardly sits still. And often there is a lot of background noise in the house. I had my doubts. Within a few weeks, though, I noticed changes in the way I reacted to every-day irritations. More patience, less complaining. And I was more aware of the small things that can make an otherwise unremarkable day seem great. Like the busy chaos of family life on any given Wednesday. Or the calm of an empty house for a few hours. Or the sound of high school marching band practicing in a nearby football field on an August afternoon.

After about a month, I noticed that areas in my life that had been stuck started to shake loose. Old habits lost their grip. I took care of projects around the house that I had put off for years, especially clearing out old junk. I found myself naturally making healthier choices. Fried chicken no longer had the same appeal. I wanted the lentil salad.

The more I focused on accepting the way things are, the more life started to shift in the direction I had wanted it to go, and I noticed a general arc toward greater contentment. I could say more, and maybe I will in a future blog, but for now I will leave it at that. Along the way, I also learned that there is scientific research to explain how this works. Curious readers may want to watch this TEDx Talk by skeptical neuroscience researcher, Sara Lazar. Or check out the book Buddha’s Brain by Rick Hanson. There are many approaches to meditation. It happens that the class I found is Heart Chan, a practice based in Buddhism as taught by a long line of Chinese master teachers.

My family keeps me from taking this practice too seriously, especially Henry. To let them know when to leave me be, I posted a sign on the bedroom door that says “Meditation In Session.” My son drew a cartoon on it.

I’m still chronically future-oriented — that’s a part of life and will probably always be my nature. For starters, I can’t wait to see Henry’s television debut. I hope the show used the shots he was in. It won’t air for several months. In the meantime, we already have our family travel plans set for Christmas. And, I aim to do a couch-to-5k running program this fall…

But, I am getting better at balancing the goal-setting with living in the moment.

A few nights ago, my son wanted my attention, to help him construct lego scenes in his room. “Mom, you said you would build the hut for Obi-Wan and Luke Skywalker,” he demands.

“Just a second,” I call out from another room, “I need to answer this text message. My friend and I are planning a visit to New York City.”

“You’re procrastinating, again, Mom. That’s not the way of the Buddha,” he teases.

At first, I laugh with him. Then, I pause.

“You’re right, Henry. It’s not,” I say. I put the smart-phone down. “I’ll be right there.”




The Long, Winding Road

My mind keeps coming back to the long, winding road up Mount Tamalpais.

After a week of bouncing around Los Angeles and San Francisco, showing her art portfolio to college advisers, visiting landmarks and sharing time with family and friends, my 17-year-old daughter and I took a day by ourselves. We rented a car in Berkeley and set out to find the Muir Woods and the seashore.

Our California vacation was the culmination of several weeks on our own together, while her brother and dad have been on an extended road trip. While home, she had been working through a number of action steps on a rising-senior’s to-do list, from completing her art concentration to researching colleges, getting her drivers permit and studying for placement exams. A few weeks ago she had a revelation that wherever she goes she wants to focus on global history. She wants a smaller venue if she can find one, but also a platform from which she can travel the world. For the most part, she takes her upcoming applications and decisions in stride, at least outwardly. I can sometimes feel a little overwhelmed by the tyranny of details, the onslaught of options.

As we started our journey up the hillside on California Route 1, it was late morning. The Indigo Girls were singing “Power of Two”. We listened to a lot of music that day, but the lines of that song would ring in my head for the next week: “So baby we’re fine, we’re okay. And I’m here to stop your crying. Chase all the ghosts from your head. I’m stronger than the monster beneath your bed…” Though its meant to be a romantic tune, the lyrics speak to me as a mom, part guide and part passenger on this amazing route with my daughter where neither of us knows the way. I think I first heard the tune when she was a baby.

The road up Mount Tamalpais curves around bend after bend. The combination of height and tight turns made my knees wobbly. I couldn’t see what was over the edge or what was ahead of us. I hung onto the steering wheel like it was a life raft, trained my eyes on the white and yellow lines marking my lane, and only occasionally glanced over to see the view, which at that point was mostly a wall of fog. We knew grandeur was there even though we couldn’t quite make it out. Once in a while the sun broke through and we caught a glimpse of the low valleys, lush and green and deep. And a moment later, the mist would hide the view again.

When we arrived at the Muir Woods, the main parking lots were full and we missed our chance to park along the road, to hike the main trails to the redwood forest. Carolyn suggested we just keep driving rather than turning back.

So we continued on. We rounded curve after curve, sometimes toward the shoulder rail and sometimes hugging the mountain-side. Cars coming around the other way, especially doubly-tall tour buses, made me inhale and focus. On a rational level, I felt safe, but at the same time I had this strange feeling that the car could slide off the hill at any moment or launch off the curve into midair, as if gravity itself could lose its grip. I took it slow. And paid attention.

It is said that we are born with only two fears, the fear of falling and the fear of loud noises. Every other fear is learned. I remember the moment I learned to fear heights. As a kid I got too close to an open window on the second floor of our house. My dad swooped me up and spanked my behind good and hard in order to keep me safe. This worked. I never went close to an open window again.

Carolyn is proof that learned fears can skip a generation. I’m thankful they do. She stared out the window with a relaxed gaze. In those moments when we caught a sense of how high we were, she was happy to look way, way, down. And to mock me.

Eventually, we left the mountain and stopped for a cup of a cocoa in Stinson Beach, a little town that doesn’t like tourists to use their bathrooms.

We decided to keep driving and to follow the signs to the Point Reyes Lighthouse. We passed through 25 miles of bucolic fields peppered with cows and horses and seaside towns. Most of the time we didn’t speak, except to remark on the landscape. Carolyn worked the radio as it cut in and out and blended musical genres in odd combinations.

I noticed a beached boat on a sand berm and stopped to take a photo. Ladies with paints and canvas on easels told us the boat had been there for fifty years, a favorite subject among artists. I was reminded of the saying that a ship at harbor is safe but that is not what ships are built for.

We kept driving, up and around a thousand plush, green hillsides. After we arrived at the parking area for the lighthouse, we followed the other tourists up a footpath where dark trees leaned over as if in a storm. An empty park bench overlooked a beach far below, watching waves push foam ashore.

Then we saw the little lighthouse which was set way down the other side of this crest, closer to the water. Such a little landmark for all this fuss, I thought. To get to it, we climbed down a long, narrow staircase. We paused.

We breathed in deep the sea air and stared out over the open water. I thought about how such a small light could have had such an important job, warning ships. It doesn’t take much to tell you where you need to know to go, and where not to. A fog horn sounded. We looked back and saw the drop-off of a the rocky cliff to the water.

On our return trip to Berkeley we decided to go back again through the Muir Woods, to see if there was any more of the forest we could see, now that morning’s veil had lifted. Along the way, we spotted a white heron on the water’s edge. I stopped to get a better look and he flew away. But not so far. I snapped some distant photos as he gracefully stepped among the water grasses.

From the moment they arrive they are already inching away. Kids, that is. To the bassinet, to the room down the hall, to grade school. And they keep stepping. On our first night in San Francisco, Carolyn decided to take a walk on her own in the unfamiliar neighborhood we were visiting. By nightfall I was worried she had gotten lost. A friend asked what would you do if she were living away at college? That’s different, I said. Because then she wouldn’t be coming home to me. We started combing the neighborhood, looking for her. About fifteen minutes later she called for a pick-up. While we were concerned, she was happy as a clam. It was dark and foggy. She didn’t know where she was or how to get back to the house. But that’s not the same as being lost. As far as she was concerned, she was right where she needed to be.

This time, at Muir Woods, we parked at the first chance we got. Now the roads were fuller than they were in the morning. We took the first available trail, a short horse path that wound through brush and trees along a creek. The path led us to the only red wood tree we would see. As we approached, we noticed that it was actually two red woods, rooted closely together. We stared up through their branches to the canopy above. I touched the red-brick bark.

Shortly after that, we got back in the car and headed again up Mount Tamalpais a few more miles. Only now, the fog was gone. We had a bright, clear view of the panoramic valleys and tall bluffs — God’s handiwork, as my sister Edy would say. I took a good long stare at the forested hills that rolled down and away as fast as the years, at a horizon as endless as a young girl’s potential. More than once, I let out a gasp. And I understood why I couldn’t see it all before.

If I had any sooner, I am pretty sure it would have been too much to take.