Such a lot of world to see

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I’m traveling, again, one of my greatest joys in life, that which keeps me inspired and optimistic and connected to the world outside of my own. Like many of us, my own world can grow conveniently small and safe. I don’t travel to be unsafe, but I travel to leap into my comfort zone which, oddly, I often feel is anywhere but New York.

I love New York. I have to. I live there and I don’t know that I’ll be leaving it any time soon, much as I would like to think I could. I could.

We are in Paris now, which has become an exotic, much cooler distant cousin to my real home. I’ve the luxury (through no effort of my own) of a consistent place to stay here and one in which I feel very good. I’ve convalesced here. I’ve spent time with family, with friends, with people new to Paris. Sitting in this lovely space, drinking a cup of coffee (that hopefully someone familiar with the metric system made), and reading and looking out at the Seine, this has become a version of Paris that I crave. Along, of course, with the sights and sounds and smells and the music and shops and restaurants and museums and the misjudged directions that lead you down a little street you’d never noticed and into an enclave of Parisian life that has nothing to do with the things your read in books or the things Americans warn you about Parisians (ignore that stuff, stat) – Paris is a beautiful creature with a dark sense of humor.

First we were in Lisbon, my lovely travel companion E and me. This trip was 16 years in the making. We met sixteen years ago this Sunday and our mid-20s friendship grew and we spoke of one day traveling together – now we are doing it. Lisbon: I wanted to visit a place, a country, I’d not yet seen, one where the three days we’d allotted before we had to be in Paris would yield the results of richness and experience that we crave in our adventures. We walked, we ate, we chatted with the locals, we saw some sights, but not too many, we put no pressure on ourselves. And it was perfect. We met Paolo at the wine bar who hails from Sao Paolo and said, “Don’t go to Brazil, it’s dangerous!” to which we replied, “Yes, we hear it can be-” and he said, “It’s dangerous because you’ll want to stay forever.

In Lisbon they took us for native French speakers, which was a fine way to practice before we got to Paris. We had a wine bar across the street and a restaurant right downstairs and around the corner was a venue the musicians we met called “The House of Fado” … Erika needed a night in after dinner and at the last minute I decided to go see what this Fado was all about … “This is the most independent thing I’ve ever done!” I said to Erika as I left, and she knew it was right up there. She checked in with me (What’s App) to make sure I was okay … and I was. I sat and listened to a couple of sets and Eduardo, the Portuguese guitar player (Portuguese guitar is his instrument) took an interest in me in a non-sleazy way – just happy to talk to someone new to the music and to explain it as he could … and it helped me to understand the concept of Fado and it was a really lovely night of music and a new temporary friend … I stayed for a few sets then went back to our apartment and the next day we trekked to the castle where my incessant fear of heights kept me on the ground consulting maps and taking photos of Erika on higher planes … we travel well together, and that’s an amazing thing to realize.

Because sometimes even the people you like most don’t make for the best travel companions; this is not the case.

Now we are in Paris – a sort of home for me though I know the city far less than I should . I’ve spend a lot of time here and it’s all been under very different and very special circumstances. Last time I was here with my darling and we did and saw things I never had before and of course we did and saw things I’ve done many times before, but through new eyes there is always so much to be gained.

Boom we walked by the most awful of awful restaurants on the ile – I will send you a photo.

Now we are in Paris and there’s so much more to say but what it comes down to is that, like any place that matters to you, be it Paris, Rome, Pula, Lisbon, Savannah, Charleston, wherever – magic is everywhere – the magic of realizing a place’s place in the world and in your own. So grateful to be here. So much chatter — I think I’ll go to sleep soon but oy vey I’m glad I’m here and you know what friends? I’d love to live elsewhere sometime. Keep giving me your ideas.

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Close the door, put out the light

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I had the loveliest soundtrack for my morning meditation today — the pouring rain. Within the past year someone asked me what my favorite sound is, and that was my answer. I don’t have favorite anythings, really, but pouring rain is in the top few.

The lyric above is, of course, from “No Quarter”. However, my introduction to Led Zeppelin came in the form of a handmade copy of “Houses of the Holy,” and the bomber jacket-clad underaged bouncer who made it for me wrote the song list incorrectly. For years I thought “No Quarter” was “The Rain Song,” and since many of the band’s song titles — and most, if not all, from that album — bear little resemblance to the lyrics, I dwelled in ignorant bliss until someone-much-cooler-than-I-am corrected me.

When I was a sophomore (wise fool) in college I was friendly with a group of gals on my floor — they were most definitely cooler than me — and one day we were sitting around in someone’s room talking and listening to music. A song came on and someone said, “So-and-so had never heard of this song before!” to which everyone replied with astonishment. “I mean, everyone knows this song, right?” she continued, and we all murmured in assent and nodded. She looked right at me and asked, “You know it, right?” and I nodded with great fervor and a look of incredulity that so-and-so had never heard of this so very knowable song before.

Every now and then I remember this, and I wonder, still, what song it was.

This meditation thing continues to be a very interesting process. They say that one thing that can occur during practice is that long forgotten memories will emerge. In some cases these can be unresolved sources of stress, and that has absolutely happened in the past week. But during one of my sessions it wasn’t specific stress, I just couldn’t get out of this one room in my childhood home — the sunroom, for those of you who know my childhood home. I pictured aspects of it I hadn’t thought of in years — the sunbleached green carpet, the pale yellow radiator, the little shelf that shared an opaque, frosted window with the powder room off the kitchen. The curtained cupboard where we stored our board games. The clock on the ceiling.

Why was there a clock on the ceiling?

I got an out-of-the-blue apology via Facebook mail from someone I de-friended years ago, someone I’d never really friended much in the first place and so hadn’t thought about since the inciting incident. Apparently, and now it’s vaguely familiar based on the exchange that had taken place five years ago, he tended to respond to my optimistic posts with extreme negativity. This was a very specifically difficult time in my life, a time when I was dealing with a serious health issue in my immediate circle, and I was terrified and I had to be strong and I was falling apart on the inside but putting on a brave face and playing an active supportive role for the person whose health was compromised. And so I guess I was posting positive statements akin to “This too shall pass” “From great suffering comes great wisdom” “Brightness follows every squall” and other saccharine dreams … and he was responding to them with comments akin to, “Yeah, but if it passes there will only be more horrible things ahead” and “nope, suffering begets greater suffering” (he’s not articulate enough for that one), and “actually, extensive flooding usually follows squalls, and with that comes poverty, disease, and more destruction,” and so on and so forth. And I guess I asked him, publicly, to stop raining on my one-woman parade (which is really just a walk) and he told me to “fuck off” (that’s an actual quote) and I defriended him.

Wow I’ve had a lot of caffeine this morning.

Anyway, so I got an out-of-the-blue, five-years-later note from him that read: “If I was a dick to you in the past, I apologize”.

Twelve step program, table for one.

I responded with, “Apology accepted, we’ve all been dicks at one point or another”.

I don’t really know what my point is in sharing that. Maybe it’s that there is no statute of limitations, in my opinion, for apologies. And that, even though I do very much love the rain, I do not like having my spirit dampened.

Life is hard for all of us; that’s the nature of the beast. But to me, the more connections we can make to one another, the richer and more beautiful it can be.

Many people in my life are going through challenging times — breakups, financial troubles, health issues, family challenges — and for these friends, and for me, I wish many moments of reprieve, however temporary, from the pain. If you’re reading my words, I promise you you are not alone. There is nothing to lose and everything to gain in reaching out if you’re going through dark times.

This post took an unexpectedly somber turn. Kittens! Baby sloths! Sea otters holding hands!

Living is easy with eyes closed

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Namaste.

I started Transcendental Meditation last week. I was very generously given a gift certificate for my birthday and it took me a few seven months to finally use it.

I was daunted by the whole thing, daunted by the notion of having to practice something, in theory, every day for the rest of my days. Twice every day. I was daunted because I’ve tried meditating in the past and have never been able to clear my mind or focus on my breathing with much consistency. And I was daunted by the notion of change — positive change, sure, but change nonetheless. Like many of us, I am very adept at holding onto things long after they’ve stopped serving me well.

In the days leading up to my first lesson I did some research — there’s tons of material on line about the practice, medical studies done at reputable institutions, celebrity testimonials, and so on and so forth.

Turns out you don’t have to clear your mind or concentrate on your breathing to practice this. At the orientation we were told that TM is not something you need to believe in, because it simply works. It’s not a religion or a philosophy or a cult … it’s a very simple technique that, they say, “Anyone can practice.”

Here’s how TM works: you sit for twenty minutes twice a day with your eyes closed, silently repeating your mantra as effortlessly as possible. Well, first you go through your four days of training, which is where you’re given your mantra, taught the technique, taught the mechanics of stress release and the physiology of the whole thing, where you watch charming, very 70s videos of the Maharishi (who emerged from the Himalayas in the 1950s to teach TM to the rest of the world), and where you can ask every question you might have, e.g. What time should I practice? What if the phone rings? What if I miss a day? Can my dog watch me meditate? What if it doesn’t work? What if I think while I’m doing it?

You’re allowed to think while you do this. In fact, you’re supposed to and to acknowledge your thoughts — you’re just not supposed to actively follow them. Whatever pops into your mind is fine; they say thoughts are the release of stress, which is one of the goals of this practice.

The cost of TM is, essentially, a lifetime membership to the club … you can go to as many followups and work with as many teachers as you wish to, and you’re welcome to visit any TM center in the world. You can attend group meditations and lectures and guest speakers and all the rest.

However, it does cost money, and that’s an obstacle for many of us. I certainly wouldn’t have done it were it not for my gift certificate. But I think the very basic mechanics of it all might be effective without the formal training — I told a friend about it and she’s going to try it on her own, albeit with a mantra of her own choosing and without someone who really knows her stuff guiding her through the beginning.

I already feel some positive results in the week+ I’ve been practicing. David Lynch, who is a huge proponent of the practice and who has a foundation that offers scholarships for learning the technique, says in a video that he had a lifetime of depression and anger before he started practicing — anger, he says, that he would take out on his first wife. After he practiced for one week, his wife commented, surprised, at how much his anger seemed to have dissipated. He says he wasn’t even aware this had happened, but then yes, he realized he felt a lot calmer, a lot less stressed. Despite the fact that nothing external had changed.

Harvard Medical School did a study in which they took a group of students, taught them the technique, and then strapped them to all kinds of devices to check heart rate and brain waves and red blood cells. The students who thought they weren’t doing it right, because they were distracted by a breakup or a failed test or some other life event, or that they just weren’t “good at it” — had the same positive health results as the others, the ones who nailed it.

In this week+ I have definitely been sleeping better and waking up earlier. I’m feeling the effects of the things I consume and the exercise I do more readily. And I’m calmer, better able to listen to people, more sure of what I need to do. I’m a fairly self-aware person to begin with, but I am very good at numbing that self awareness and sabotaging my productivity. At giving and receiving less than I deserve. I feel stronger, emotionally, and I am so very grateful that I do.

Still daunting to think this is the new normal for me, this daily practice, but it is definitely something I will try hard to practice consistently. If you have to skip a session, the good isn’t undone. The twice daily twenty minute session is the guideline for optimal results. Apparently once daily for twenty minutes is better than twice for ten — it takes about twenty minutes (fifteen according to some of the literature) for the mind to really settle as it’s meant to.

The mantra they assign you is a Sanskrit “sound” — not a defined word — and you are meant to keep it to yourself. You are also meant to not concern yourself with how it’s spelled, which is challenging for a writer … the idea is that the less you attach to it the more it can function as it’s supposed to, to bring your mind into a deeper, more reflexive state of calm. My teacher described the mantras as “charming sounds” — and it’s funny to think that this charming little sound is now an integral part of my daily life. The first few days I felt oddly maternal toward it.

I had a conversation earlier about the mythologies we grow up believing about ourselves, mythologies based mostly on external factors — our role in the family, the mistakes we’ve made, the things, positive and negative, we’ve been told over and over about ourselves. It can be hard to break free of these fabricated identities and it is very important to be able to do so. This is, I think, one of the positive side effects of things like meditation — as we become more in tuned with ourselves and our essences, we access a more pure version of ourselves and can move forward accordingly, less susceptible to the negative influences of external forces.

I am in transition these days, and this is a historically challenging place for me — for many of us — to be. But as my lunch companion said, transition is necessary for positive growth. And that is my mission.