“It’s like driving at night with the headlights on. You can only see a little aways ahead of you, but you can make the whole journey that way.”
~ E.L. Doctorow, on writing
For the first time in years I didn’t go to the Dixon artist studio tour. I love that tour.
Dixon is a tiny hamlet that seems out of the way unless you know it’s there. Then, it’s simply a gem on the way to Taos. What I love about this tour is there’s a true center to the community, including an actual community center (!), small market, library, and other buildings of specific function. A large number of the 1000 souls who live there are artists. These days I go for the sense of being part of something as much as for the artists’ work. Really good music is always happening live in the community center. The small restaurant that’s sure to have a long line come lunch time serves yummy, well-prepared New Mexican fare. And tho a car is needed to visit most of the studios, you can amble thru some about ‘town.’ Apple orchards, acequias, and the Embudo River that usually runs clear renders the valley particularly beautiful.
This year, tho, I didn’t feel like the drive up. I took myself to The Teahouse for breakfast instead. The small adobe building, formerly a residence, was packed inside. The 56 windy degrees outside pushed me to accept a tiny table indoors that at any other time I’d reject to wait for the next option.
I sat in the smaller middle room, my favorite. Against a wall on an extremely busy aisle — the single pass-through from the entry & kitchen to the two rooms across the back of the house. The aisle where every person coming & going + every wait & support staff walk. On the wall behind me was another busy spot, the rack holding food & tea menus. I cocooned in the ancient, low-seated barrel chair whose sides rose nearly to my shoulders. And somehow, beyond comprehension of anyone who knows me, I stepped out of the noise that can feel like an assault.
40 footfalls a minute passed by my chair. The floor vibrated and bounced with each footfall. I looked about the room at the people, pulled out my notebook and ordered food. My thought, I love my life in this moment. Sitting in this place drinking fine tea. The sight of favorite fall draped trees against an oh, so blue sky out the window. The sunlight that streamed in once the cloud passed. Knowing the folks there didn’t care if I linger. This town where asking for water that’s never seen ice sounds normal. I was mindful I belonged.
I believe mindfulness is not about meditation and rules. It’s about paying attention, listening, being present. That the quieter we become, the more we hear. Things we so often fail at. Because we’re human, and carry a big suitcase that’s gathered pieces of paper and memory, words and sounds, images and smells and feelings from a minute ago to that time in kindergarten when our prized fifty-cent piece was dismissed by the teacher.
We dream ahead, plan & prepare ahead, think & live ahead. Our presence in the moment co-opted by aspirations down the road a minute or year, vs. what feeds our present. At least I do.
The word aspiration reminds me of my class with author Meg Wolitzer at Stony Brook Southampton Writers Conference. Meg has the best exercises. This one paired two writers of opposite predilections in writing. Which meant me of description & words with one whose words are spare. The instruction, take the other writer’s work, and write to it. No more than one page, double spaced.
I wrote a fiction piece to a powerful, spare poem about an abused kid who aspired for the freedom of the surf.
I spent the afternoon after class learning everything I could about surfing. The how-to’s of the sport. The language and habits of surfers. The timing and experience of a ride, and wipe-out. The places and names the 14 yr. old in her poem might relate to. I loved the challenge in that exercise. By the time I began writing, I could feel and see every word I wrote. Watching the big waves roll in, the thunder of the break, that point of decision when you hit the water. Underwater, the seconds of disorientation, not knowing which way is up, that feel like minutes. When I read the piece aloud in class, she asked if I surfed, her face clearly expectant. I was almost disappointed to say ‘no.’ She said I got it, exactly.
It was because I was mindful to the ethos of the kid in pain, and heard something between the lines. I was present to it as I allowed the resolution to unfold. I wanted that kid to triumph in a way she knew for herself she had. Somehow I knew shooting the tube on the North Shore, Oahu like John John Florence, who at 13 was the youngest surfer ever to compete professionally, who was famous for shooting the big wave tubes, was how she’d know.
I once read there are no new stories, just new ways of telling them. I believe that. I think the secret is to pay attention to the people in them. The ones of our life, and the ones we read or see outside our life.
This is what I know. . . mindfulness is akin to wonder. Not a doing, but being. Something that happens when we’re connected with something other than ourselves. It’s being happy & sad, feeling freedom & fear, residing in strength & vulnerability, sure & uncertain at once. Present to the dance of live.
There are no new stories, just new ways of telling them. Pay attention to people in stories. They show what it is to be human, and to wonder. After all, as Ram Dass says, “We are all just walking each other home.”
- Look at the people in stories you’ve seen on film and paper. Be mindful. What do you see beyond the story?
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