On The All of It
Lately when I attempt to sit down to meditate (notice the word attempt) I am almost instantly filled to the brim with feeling. This feeling isn’t exactly bad, or exactly painful. It’s characterized more by a kind of fullness that threatens to overflow. My throat constricts. My eyes well with tears. My heart pounds just a little bit harder, to let me know that it’s there. Feeling. Ready or not, seems to be the beat of my heart. Ready or not.
I am writing this at my kitchen table. My family is still upstairs asleep. Even the dogs have left me alone. This is not the usual shape of things in my house. Usually I’m the last out of bed. But rain pounds on the rooftop — our little dog was up all night because he’s terrified of storms — and so we all slept fitfully. As I look around my dark, solitary kitchen, I take it all in: the bowl of lemons on my kitchen table. The counter top covered with equipment — coffee maker, cappuccino machine, blender, toaster. A basket with every kind of vitamin known to man. Dried peppers from our garden. Envelopes with galleys of Still Writing waiting to go out in today’s mail. Behind me, my son’s tennis racket and a new frisbee he just bought that apparently flies lower and faster and farther than any frisbee ever before.
Also on my kitchen table, my well-worn book of Buddhist wisdom. It’s old now. Its pages are wavy and stained, it’s spine all but fallen off. Today’s quote is from Kalu Rinpoche: “From possession is born need. From non-attachment, satisfaction.
Oh, but it is hard to be unattached. Unattached to the people I love most in the world, sleeping upstairs. Unattached to the health of my body as I sit here writing. Unattached to the little books in those envelopes. Unattached to the home around me where I have raised my son. I glance upward at two pictures hanging on the wall. They were taken for a magazine five minutes ago — but wait, my son is small. My husband’s hair is darker. I am younger. In one of them, Jacob sits on the kitchen counter and kisses me on the lips. It has been years since he’s sat on the kitchen counter. Years since he’s wanted to kiss his mother on the lips.
From non-attachment, satisfaction.
I’m always exhorting my writing students to do the work and then let go. To do the work, and understand that the rest — the rest is none of our business. I quote Martha Graham on making dance: “It is not your business to determine how good it is, nor how valuable it is, nor how it compares with other expressions.” Graham goes on to write to her friend Agnes DeMille that it is only her business to keep it uniquely hers. She understood that our lives are as individual as snowflakes. That we must, if we are artists — hell, if we are human beings — be focused only on the work, and letting go. The work, and letting go.
Ready or not, my heart continues to beat. Ready or not.
My son is going off to boarding school in September. My husband has made the second massive career switch in his life — from foreign correspondent to screenwriter and now, to filmmaker. My writing life continues to transform in ways I could never have imagined. Everywhere I look, life is changing. Grace Paley once told my friend Amy Bloom that between the ages of fifty and eighty, it’s not minutes, it’s seconds.
And so, at my empty kitchen table, I take a deep breath, past the thickness in my throat. I let it all in — the all of it — the grief, sadness, joy, exhilaration, anxiety, fear, loss, and triumph of a lifetime. What other choice do I have? Upstairs, my family is stirring. Somewhere, someone is taking a shower. The dogs stretch and yawn.
Another precious day begins.