My default speed out in the world is FAST. Customers marvel at how quickly I answer their emails and process quotes and orders. Out on the book floor, I’m zippy at the cash register and wrap gifts in a flash. If I perceive a customer is not inclined or able to trot after me, I offer to retrieve what they need while they wait. I walk at a clipped pace through the store and sometimes lose customers who have tried to follow me. I’ll apologize saying I’m a New Yorker and still walk like one.
When things get busy, I may get annoyed by colleagues who don’t seem to know how to move more quickly and cut their conversations short. As if they are tourists from Boise and lumbering down 42nd Street, I want them to step up the pace. But the fact is, some of them are our best salespeople, engaging customers, taking their time as if that person is the only one. They do not rush through their transactions, they make contact.
When I get home after work, I try to slow down. I attempt to recover myself. Not my high functioning, efficient employee, A-type personality, self — rather, the self I aspire to become all the time. I get better practice on the weekends – taking my time, doing my best to pay attention to each moment, to the world around and within me.
Last week, a bout of vertigo required I shift gears. In the wee hours of the morning I turned in bed and felt something in my head become unhinged, a weird little shifting in my ears. The world began to spin from my pillow. By morning this sensation had passed enough so I was able to get up and go to work but I’ve yet to completely shake a slight vertigo. I have had to slow down. Rather than barreling on at my usual breakneck speed, I’ve been moving more consciously, carefully stepping through the day, lest I start the spinning again. I feel as if I’m carefully balancing something inside of me.
And I am: life. I am balancing my life. And what’s the rush? Where do I hope to get to? I am here now and if you are here with me too, for whatever our transaction or pleasure, I will try and be completely present. I have to because otherwise I may spiral off. Don’t worry, I will still answer my emails efficiently, I’ll just walk a little slower through the book stacks. Along the way, I may recommend my favorite reads and learn what yours are. I will remember, as I keep my head steady and avoid jerky movements, that our time together, like the end of the day, will come fast enough without me rushing towards it.
I’ve spent my 2 recent vacations this summer, in a torpor. Nary a dust bunny disappeared, weeds continued unhindered around the garden and I barely wrote a word here or anywhere. I simply read and watched the birds. Of course all the while beating myself up for being unproductive since there is so much that needs doing and I rarely have enough time in my usual day-to-day to do it all.
R rescued me from this cloud of guilt by sweeping me off to the beach for a few days. What’s there to do but watch and sometimes venture into waves? We spent hours with our toes in the sand, barely speaking a word, only smiling at each other between reading, dozing, people watching and dreaming. Bliss.
Although I brought my computer with a vague notion I might wake early and write, I did not. I barely checked my time-sucking phone for tweets and updates I really didn’t need or want. Staring at the sea and the parade of tattoo covered skin (is there anyone left on the planet who doesn’t have ink?) for hours on end was a bit like getting my mental hard-drive cleaned, the constant roar of waves washing away everything. I read and read and read, bathing in the breezes, the waves, the sun. I did something I haven’t done for years: I had a short and very sweet actual vacation.
I recently heard a radio interview on On Being with Social Psychologist Ellen Langer about mindfulness. When you have time, listen for some refreshing insight and inspiration. Langer speaks, in this great NY (I think) accent, about cultivating mindfulness in daily life through the simple act of just noticing things. This clicked with me since I seem to have a hard time maintaining a meditation routine for very long. Crazy these requirements I set up for myself of what I think I should be doing to get from A to B in my life. Do you do this? Are we crazy?
As I ready to return to work tomorrow, the sound of the waves still echo and that is enough.
Christmas is over. Phew. The craziness of retail is exhausting. Not unpleasant, just whirlwind-busy with very little down-time. Unwinding at the end of a day was nearly impossible as even in my dreams I was ringing up customers and searching for books before I got to wake up and do it all again for real.
And really, it’s enjoyable. Most people are happy to be in a bookstore and that makes for good company. Customers exclaimed over and over again how nice it was to see the store so busy and I agreed. Other stores that sells clothing or towels usually just feel frantic and unbearable when they get crowded. A good atmosphere exists in our store because we sell BOOKS – books that inspire, excite, move — hell: that sometimes save us!
Most of the year, my position entails a lot of hours in my little back office and outside the store’s walls, working on sales to schools and companies. (Call me when you need to buy in bulk!) But during this time of year, it’s all-hands-on-deck, the ‘deck’ being out on the book floor. For me, being with customers looking for books is a treat. Of course, we sell a lot of other great and beautiful things, but it’s books that really jazz me.
After all of these years, the store feels a bit like my home – and when customers come in, I genuinely welcome them. My favorite is seeing a blank face – an obvious call for help in finding a book, or even better – making a suggestion. Best of all is when they are looking for a book for themselves. I ask questions: Are they taking a trip? Where to? What was the last book they loved? Together we wander the tables and shelves – a mix of gems, new and old. Of course, suggesting is particularly easy if we share the same taste, but if not, I still can connect them to other books that they’ll like based on the clues they give me. Or if it’s sci-fi (sorry, I’m lost then) I’ll introduce one of several of my colleagues who love that genre. Likewise, we have history buffs, mystery and of course, kid’s book experts.
Grandparents often seem stumped when it comes to finding books for grandchildren and I suggest they choose ones they loved as children rather than trying to figure out the hot new series and whether the kid will like it. This usually launches a great discussion about their lives as we ponder the selections together. (The Wind in the Willows anyone?) What beauties there are on those Children’s Classics shelves!
Hearing my customers’ stories while trying to find them a book is an honor and the connections made in the aisles of the store can be profound. I’ve shared tears with people struggling with addiction-fall-out, or grieving the death of a loved one. I’ve shared travel stories with customers planning trips across the globe, recipes and favorite cookbooks, dog stories in the pet section, garden joys and woes in the gardening section and every kind of story in fiction. You name it. The stuff of life, everyday.
When someone is nearby while I’m discussing books with one customer, sometimes I’ll see another listening in. That third person may pipe in too, making their own suggestions, unable to resist the urge to passionately gush about a book they loved – or hated – often going on to share their story. I love this infectious engagement, a beautiful face-to-face bonding over books made possible in our brick and mortar bookstore. Not available on Amazon.
On days like yesterday, when the roads are a mess of icy-slush, there is always that car that just seems to be inching along. Annoying, right? That person should have just stayed home. Well… I hate to admit it but that’s me hunched over the steering wheel, staring wide-eyed at the road. Okay, maybe I’m not quite that bad. But I can’t help it – driving in lousy weather terrifies me. I promise you, when I can, I avoid it. But I’m a diligent employee and live closer than almost anyone else to the store. It feels wrong to call out because I’m afraid to get behind the wheel.
Every winter I am determined to be brave. After all, other people drive in the snow and don’t seem traumatized. But my hands cramp from squeezing the steering wheel. I need to remind myself to breathe, I shrug my shoulders to release the tension that threatens to paralyze me. Plotting my route carefully – I go for the roads most likely to be clear – although I stay off the highway – the less speed the better for me and I certainly don’t want the additional terror of 16 wheeler trucks barreling alongside me. Usually I head for the Post Road – although equally frightening can be those crazy-huge SUVs with names like “ENVOY” disdainfully spraying me with slush as they speed by.
Honestly, I’m really a little embarrassed by this crazy fear of mine. Even more so because I drive a Subaru Forester with excellent tires. I mean, you can’t get much better than that for great snow driving. It’s me. I lack physical confidence and weirdly, I feel like even my car knows it, as if it were a horse. As a 12 year old, I tried horseback riding. After a summer of lessons, I finally admitted that I didn’t believe the massive creature I sat upon would ever think I was in charge. I certainly didn’t think so.
In other ways, I am not a coward. I’ll travel the world by myself without a thought. I willingly went to live in a war zone – and was not fearful. Public speaking feels completely natural for me – something many of my bravest friends are terrified of. But physically, I am a complete chicken. I don’t like adrenaline rushes brought on by physical thrills. I’ve never ridden a roller coaster and never intend to, in fact, amusement parks are a waste for me – I’m not going to willingly get jerked and tossed around. I got as far as the swimming pool part of scuba diving training and bagged it. The last time (and I mean, the last time) I took a ski lift ride I kept my eyes closed the entire time.
I think my dread relates to control — of my lack of it. That terrifies me. During those last years with my husband as he slid faster and faster down the steep slope of addiction, I felt like I was spinning across an icy highway full of traffic. Through the chaos, I tried to hang on, sliding along on the scariest, slipperiest slopes, flailing about for stability. There wasn’t a damn thing I could do. I kept trying. Until I didn’t. And then he died.
Maybe I’m reading too much into this. But a decade later, it’s only on those messy roads full of fearless, or maybe reckless drivers, that I get that same sick-to-my-stomach feeling. It’s a familiar horror as the steering wheel becomes useless in my hands as I slip on an icy road — even if only in my imagination.
What am I afraid of? Crashing the car? Injury? Death – either mine or someone else’s? Yes. I am afraid of all of those things. I should stay home.
My learning style is to figure things out by doing rather than follow instructions. As a result, I don’t quite know how to make the most of my GPS nor how to smoothly switch between watching the television and DVDs. So it’s strange that I have felt the desire for instruction in meditation. The other morning during our “Creativity Session” with Fran, I asked him for more direction regarding the ‘sitting’ part of his session. Fran is a regular at a Zen Monastery in Mount Tremper, NY and has been seriously meditating for years now. He said that in Zen, there is very little instruction beyond establishing a comfortable, stable sitting posture and following the breath. As in the Japanese Koan, the answer, the way is found within ourselves.
While living in Kyoto, I was drawn to Buddhist temples, fascinated by the robed monks who sometimes floated by or collected my Yen at the gate. But I never ventured into to any of the many Zazen sessions available to foreigners. Perhaps it was remnants of Catholic-rebellion that prevented me from wanting to adopt any semblance of rote ritual. Besides, the language and ideas felt too oblique for me. I prefer my Buddhism interpreted by the likes of Pema Chodron or – through her anecdotes and straight talk.
Why this inability to trust myself when it comes to meditating? This irrational sense of not doing it right? Is it feeling that I’m not smart enough to really get it? That I’m missing something? Like what – the point? See? Intellectually, I know that I’m being silly. But still.
When our group discusses our late teacher, Mike Skop‘s soup of philosophy on perception, on being, etc., – I recall furiously scribbling notes because I barely made heads or tails of what he was talking about. But inevitably. a sound bite of something he said would resonate, and as I began to work the clay or hammer my chunk of wood or stone, I would understand, it would become part of me.
It’s in this almost physical way that insights would come to me. This is how I learn best – viscerally, through my work, previously artwork and now, writing. But it must come from a silence beyond the day-to-day, a quiet not immediately accessible by simply turning on the computer or taking out a blank pad.
Thanks to daily life and the crazy distractions found with an internet connection, is often hard for me to get to this place these days. This is why I hope to establish a discipline of ‘sitting’. Meditating, sitting with my legs crossed on the floor, feeling the earth beneath, the space above, counting breaths as my inner chatter fades, brings me closer to the zone, delivering me to the door of the intangible where magic can be found.
Mangos were on sale and how could I resist a whole case for less than $10?
My mango slicing technique stinks, but by the third fruit I was doing an adequate job of slicing the mango off the pit with skin still attached, criss-cross slicing the flesh attached to the skin, popping the skin inside out and deftly lobbing off nice chunks of fruit. I confess, I am still not very ‘deft’ but the resulting dish was delicious.
A simple recipe courtesy of Mark Bittman: a can of rinsed black beans, a deftly sliced mango or two, scallions, mint, salt, pepper and a squeeze of lime juice. (Thank you, Kitchen Express.) I also made a lassi/smoothie with mango and mint with a batch of yoghurt that never quite turned solid enough (though it worked well for salad dressing) blended together with ice. Lovely.
I also snipped at the herb pots with my scissors and made this beverage with my clippings – a concoction of lemon verbena and lemon balm and mint, a good squeeze from the rest of that lime and a dollop of honey blended up with some ice.
A lazy and spectacular summer day, savored here with the Sunday paper …
Yesterday morning I shuffled out of the house to walk Tetley, simultaneously grouchy about and awestruck by the beauty of the snow that had fallen overnight. My neighborhood looked like a black-and-white movie
Twenty-four little hours later, I pulled into the driveway after work and caught a glimpse of color in the corner of the garden. I stepped across the now soggy brown lawn and found these. A promise of spring.
That’s March, isn’t it? A crazy month of winds, rains, dramatic light changes, time changes. The calendar tells us it’s Spring even as we still shiver and our breath lingers like a cloud in the frosty air. Still, we made it through winter – the proof is in the brave croci. We are in for wonderful changes – right? Notice, I hesitate. That’s the way I’ve been recently.
Lately, my old enemy – anxiety – has been lurking around ready to pounce on me at anytime, grabbing my throat and giving me a gut punch. My daughter is a senior in high school and we are waiting for college decisions, financial aid offers. Where will she be accepted? What will I be able to afford? You get the picture.
The uncertainty of major changes, so much being up in the air like this, makes me hold my breath, my chest gets tight. Like any parent, I want my daughter’s life to be perfect – for her to get what she wants – or at the very least, what she needs. And in this case, there is very little I can do to control that. So I have become a worrying, anxious mess. I hate myself like this and my daughter, the picture of calm and acceptance, thinks I’m crazy.
These 24 hours in nature (as always, my favorite teacher) reminds me how fast things can change and how most of the time, there’s not a damn thing you can do about any of it. Depending on how you look at it, this fact can be a comfort or, if you are me, a terror. That’s the key: it’s how you look at it. Any of us who have lived on the planet for any time certainly have experienced both the joys and sorrows of change and how fast things can happen.
Within 24 hours you may meet – or lose – the love of your life, win the lottery – (I’m waiting…) or lose your fortune, be diagnosed with cancer or given the all-clear. Shit happens and much of it is beyond our control. Better to not get in a tizzy, right? Better to wait and see what life will bring and meanwhile, try to live in the present. Seize the joy of a blossom or just relax and delight in the peace of a snowy morning as sick as I may be, of winter. Breathing is so much easier without the vice-grip of anxiety around my throat. And besides, this morning, it smells like spring.
The snow brought a lovely quiet and a rare state of ‘not-doing’ to my home. Life always seems a constant of ‘must-do’s’. You know, the endless lists: laundry, cook, clean, groceries, pay-bills, exercise squeezed in around a 40 hour job. Even things I enjoy and some I love — have an element of ‘must’ to them – or at least a feeling of ‘should’ – socialize, write, walk, even read. Do, do, do!
But this weekend, blanketed by record snows, we were told by the authorities (!) to stay home. Stay home. You must stay home! How sweet. Obediently, I didn’t budge. I did a few things from my enjoyable ‘must’ list like reading and cooking and a little writing – but for a few hours of being home-bound, I did nothing. Except, look.
In winter, I get up to go to work in the dark. Dressing by the light of the closet so as not to disturb still sleeping R, I often choose colors or socks that are just a tad mismatched. By the time I lumber upstairs again at the end of the day to change out of work clothes, it’s dark again. I rarely see the light in my sweet bedroom. So on one of these frozen days, stuck at home by snow drifts and howling winds, I sat on my bed and watched the light and the views from my bedroom window.
I reveled in the sweet angles of golden warmth and shadows I rarely glimpse. Like a cat, I curled up in the slowly shifting patches of warmth and did not leave until the light was gone and the sky had faded to a chilly pink.
Yesterday, although bitterly cold, was so bright and fresh, I wanted to be outside. I gathered twigs and branches as kindling for the fireplace. We’ve had a fire every night recently – a beautiful, antidote to the cold night – even if it’s mostly aesthetic. Then I decided to prune back the butterfly bushes. I’d intentionally left them an explosion of woody branches until now, to provide a perch for the birds and perhaps, seed still hidden in the dried-out flower heads. Yesterday, I lobbed them off. While I was at it, I tackled the roses. I know: you real gardeners out there are probably flinching. What was I thinking? Somewhere in my memory banks I recalled that roses should be cut before spring. Only today I read it’s best to do so when at least the forsythia is in bloom. Uh-oh. But look, I took this photo yesterday — proof that spring is on its way.
In any case, that wasn’t what I was going to tell you about. While out cutting back the Budelia bush, Nuthatches started to swoop around on their way to the feeder beside me. Iphone in my shaky hand, I tried to get a photo or two. Standing there in the cold, very still, the birds tweeting about me, I flashed back to being a young girl. I was up in the woods behind the house my parents owned in Canaan, NY, our weekend get-away from NYC. I loved it there. A city kid by birth, I longed to be a nature-girl, living in the woods, eating off the land and while there, I pretended I was. AStalking the Wild Asparagusdevotee – I even dug up dandelions from Van Cortlandt park and cooked up the little flower buds for my 5th grade classmates at PS 95. (hint: butter makes anything yummy)
Wandering alone ‘up the hill’ into the woods behind the house was heaven for me. Stepping gingerly, trying to be quiet enough I might catch sight of a deer. In early summer, I searched for wild strawberries and blueberries in the hidden field on the other side of the wood. I dozed in that abandoned meadow, absorbing bird and insect sounds but mostly silence. Sometimes, in the winter, I stood for what seemed forever in the snow, my arm still as a lamp post, bird seed in my cupped hand, hoping a fearless Nuthatch might land on me to steal a snack. They came so close, chirping in my ear, inching upside down along the branches very near to me, yet never touched my icy hand.
Yesterday, standing by the feeder, that girl again, I recalled the joy I found in my walks, in those frozen moments of watching and hoping for contact. And this time, trying at least for a good photo. As you can see, not much success – but still, it was precious, being still, watching, waiting. A kind of meditation and a sweet reminder to me of what decades later, remains a way to peace.
In another 8 months, my daughter will be off to her new life as a college student. This imminent change for both of us has cooked up a veritable soup of emotions but also, a sense of possibility about what adventures might also be awaiting me. My dreaming was inspired by this list of “best places to retire” article on this morning’s Yahoo page. I can never resist reading through their choices, imagining myself in any of those places. Forbes’ list launched me into a full-fledged fantasy about what I might do, of course, (since this is fantasy) if I could indeed retire. Once an expat, the itch never quite goes away. Here’s my plan:
Call me a scrooge, but still reeling from 15 years of holiday retail, I’d give all the Merry Christmas business a miss and disappear to Japan where December 25th is basically a day to eat クリスマスケーキ pronounced “krisumas-cayki”. After ringing in the New Year in lovely Kyoto, traditionally a time of cleaning and contemplation and ringing a big old bell at a neighborhood temple (details here) it’s off to find the warmth of the sun.
Definitely time I went back to Bali. (thanks Yukiko for the great photo) Creativity is everywhere in the hill villages of that tiny Hindu island in Indonesia. (please note: I was a pre-Elizabeth Gilbert visitor) I imagine a month of writing, eating, walking, while reveling in the sound of gamelans, the rice paddies, waterfalls and the brilliant smiles of the warmest people I’ve ever met. And the food is good.
Next, all the way to the bottom tip of Australia.
Tasmania is where Jenny, one of my most missed and dearest friends in the world lives. We are friends from Kyoto days – and I have never laughed so hard and so often with anyone in my life and that alone makes this a trip to take. Bonus that it will be summer there and Tasmania looks incredible with wild beaches and incredible bush.
After exploring around the South Pacific, (Fiji? Papua New Guinea maybe?) it will be time to make my way back towards spring in the Northern Hemisphere. First stopping for some good eats and the crazy energy of Hong Kong and a little exploration of South East Asia. (Laos?)
Spring comes early to the incredible coast of Croatia and Montenegro. I long to marvel once again at the Adriatic light, the most remarkable spectrum of sea colors. Ideally, there will be a sweet house (or this incredible place looks fine!) looking out at that rugged landscape where I will write and maybe even paint for a month or so. I imagine the scent of eucalyptus, the light, the soft breeze through the cypress and the crystalline water lapping over the rocks. I’ll sit here and read, stare, swim, doze…
Next, a visit to Greece. I haven’t been since becoming entranced at 18 when I landed on the island of Paros and could explore no further. There is an art school there so even in November, although the tourists were gone, I discovered a dynamic arts community. It was as if I had been drugged by the sweet lavender air – the days drifted into one another – exploring the rocky hills, the restaurants, the retsina? What was it about that place? I’d like to see if I’d feel it again. And – to eat the food! To, as I did a lifetime ago, wake to the fisherman slapping octopus against the rocks.
Italy always calls to me. Perhaps I can make that visit with Molly – a pilgrimage to her birthplace in Puglia, to the hospital in Brindisi and if we can find them, meet up with the doctors who saved her life. Then, up north to a villa – in Tuscany or here less saturated Abruzzo. I’d invite my Studio 70 sisters for one of our creative retreats. This would do nicely, don’t you think, gals?
I imagine our days overlooking the hills, dinners of incredible food and endless red wine. Still, we’ll wake early and find our solitary corners to drink too many cups of coffee and feel inspired. Bliss.
By then it’s time to return to Connecticut to plant my garden at my sweet house and catch up with loved friends. Of course the groundhogs will still eat most of what I plant but I won’t mind as much. As I’m retired, there will be no excuses not to host all the dinner parties I always imagine – set at our lovely table out back. The sunflowers (these past years, eaten as seeds, every one) will be bountiful.
Lots of kayaking out to the islands and long overdue trips into the city to museums and restaurants and visits with missed friends and family.
As summer wanes, it’s time to hit the road again — into the groovy AirStream of my dreams for a leisurely trip across the States. I know it’s terribly muggy in Kentucky at this time of year but that just makes everyone move slower – savoring the sweaty nights of catching up with more missed friends from Studio 70 days. We’ll sit along the muddy banks of the meandering Ohio River as if no time has passed but rather just been an endless current of connection unbroken by time or space. And of course, like the old days, we’ll discuss time, space, art.
Then, meandering across the US – (the northern route this time) – popping in to National Parks (check out the webcam of Old Faithful!) A few weeks of luxuriously visiting friends, making new ones, browsing bookstores and thrift shops, farmer’s markets.
Now it’s autumn — a good time to tootle along the Pacific Coast — hikes through the (to me) exotic landscape and perhaps landing in an idyllic spot overlooking the ocean — to contemplate, walk, write — somewhere temperate – Monterey area maybe? I remember a summer spent in San Francisco – and again, the light and sweet air smells.
And as we roll into December it will be time to head back to Kyoto again – to get ready to ring in another year of itchy-foot plans. India? Definitely Morrocco…