This week, I’m in Eagan, Minnesota, for meetings with co-workers. My boss works from our Eagan office, and about half of our team, and there are other people here I needed to get together with. Of course, this is the coldest week of the year, pretty much every year, in the Twin Cities area, so I’m enjoying subzero temperatures (yes, that’s Fahrenheit), wind, blowing snow, and black ice. And by ‘enjoying,’ I mean, well… I guess what I mean is pretty much unprintable.
I’ve noticed a theme popping up in the monologue that continues through my brain when I’m not thinking about something in particular. That theme is rather simple: pay attention. I’ve learned that when a particular theme pops up a lot during the obscure workings of my brain, that the theme is coming from a much deeper place than my conscious thoughts. Whether you call that place the Authentic Self (a la Jung) or God, the ideas that come from this place need to be heeded. If not, we continue to be nagged by them, with increasing frequency, until the clue-by-four whacks us in the back of the head. So… I’m paying attention to the idea of, well, paying attention.
There are lots of places where you can be told that there are two or three rules to live by: (1) Show up. (2) Pay attention. And if there’s a (3) it is usually Tell the truth. These are very good rules to live by, and they’re pretty much in the right order.
The problem is, as it seems to be with just about any rule that looks simple, these rules are awfully hard! Just think about how hard it can be to show up every day. Do we really show up at work or school every day? Do we always show up for worship? For soccer and little league and gymnastics classes? Do we show up for choir and band parents meetings and, God forbid, the adult forum during the Sunday school hour? There can be great virtue in simply showing up, even when we don’t feel able to do anything more than that. We don’t always realize this — especially those of us with invisible illnesses, who carefully ration our spoons so that we can be there, even if we don’t have enough left to do anything once we’ve shown up — but we do serve as examples, as role models. It can be very hard to show up for our commitments, especially the ones that represent commitments to ourselves, or to God. We think, Is anyone really going to be disappointed if I don’t show up at church on Sunday? Or perhaps, if I skip the Weight Watchers meeting this Wednesday, nobody will notice. But we often do ourselves a disservice when we talk ourselves out of these commitments. Of course, there are times when we really should stay home, and that’s something different, but that boundary can get more than a bit blurry and uncomfortable sometimes.
So once we’ve bothered to dress for the occasion, put on our happy faces whether we feel them or not, and show up to work or playdate or school or church or whatever, now we have a second rule. Pay attention. I’ll admit that I often find this one even harder to live by than the first. I’ll become occupied with some fascinating train of thought, and have lots of avenues to explore, and so I’ll lose track of what’s happening around me. Or I’ll start to feel uncomfortable in my seat, and the little fidgets distract me from the professor’s lecture. Or perhaps I’ll be so pleased with myself over some minor accomplishment that I bask in the glow of my own pride rather than noticing what’s going on. I know I’m far from the only one who can have trouble staying focused. The thing is, there is so much wonderful stuff around us, and I think we’re already overworked, overstressed, overtired, overstimulated, so we just gloss over most of it and just let it become part of the background.
This evening, I ate supper in the lounge in the hotel. There are three televisions in the lounge. One was tuned to CNN, one to the hockey game (Minnesota was beating Phoenix pretty badly), and the other to Fox News. Guess which one had the volume turned on, while the other two were muted. Yup, the hockey game. It’s cute and a little funny, but most of us wouldn’t notice it unless we were paying attention. I was the only one to take a table to myself, but shortly after I entered, another gentleman sat at the table behind me. One group at a table was talking about politics. Across the bar, another group was growing increasingly loud as they enjoyed their beer, and started getting a bit vulgar after a while. The gentleman behind me talked with a coworker on his cell phone almost the entire time he was there, and he left before I did.
Yesterday, at JFK airport, there was a restaurant that was supposed to be a kind of Irish pub. It was about 10am, and only the bar section was open, with stools at the bar, and stools surrounding some tables. Here I was, 4’9″ and having hip, knee, and ankle problems. There was no way I could manage a bar stool, but the section with regular tables was closed. That restaurant would have had my business, but they clearly hadn’t noticed the needs of its customers who might have mobility issues. I noticed it right away, like a big flashing sign that said: Shorties And Gimps Keep Off The Grass.
Three different times, a family of people from India stopped a few chairs down from where I sat reading my book, to resettle their belongings after coming through security. I noticed that they all had a similar odor, and I remembered hearing nasty stereotypes about people from India smelling bad and not having what most Americans would consider good hygiene practices. I hadn’t ever experienced that before, and I was surprised by it. I’m still trying to erase that link from my brain, because I know that “from India” does not equal “smells bad.”
A little while later, I sat in a different seat, across from two young women who were watching a movie together on a MacBook. They were huddled rather closely together, almost intimately, but not quite, maybe sisters or roommates or BFFs. They seemed very young, like 19 or 20, and wore t-shirts and lounge-type pants, with their shoes kicked off. Both women moved very gracefully, and both seemed plain but radiated beauty. I can see them being overlooked by anyone who judges instantly based on appearance, but my impression is that both women are treasures.
On the plane, I had trouble getting my briefcase and coat into the overhead bin, and a nice man helped me get them up there. A bit later, a pair of women with a pronounced NYC accent took out my coat to be able to get more bags into the bin. They were very brisk and motherly, and they got everything organized and packed very effectively. I smiled as I watched and listened. When the plane landed in Minneapolis, the man who had helped me (a NYC Jewish man — the yarmulke gave him away) and the two brisk and motherly NYC women all offered to help me get the bag back down and make sure I got into the terminal all right. I was amazed, because of the stereotype again that questions whether one should expect kindness and helpfulness from NYCers. I smiled and thanked them, and let them help me get everything back down, then told them that a wheelchair would be waiting for me, so they should go ahead and get off the plane.
A few rows ahead of me on the plane sat two young ladies from NYC, in their young 20s, who seemed to be taking their first vacation-style trip as adults. They laughed and giggled a lot, drank some vodka from those tiny airline bottles, and seemed genuinely excited and happy. One row behind them sat a woman from Minnesota. She was probably about 50 years old, and her dark brown hair had strands of grey in it. As she watched and listened to the two youngsters, she smiled widely, and her smiles made the most wonderful crinkles appear in the corner of her eyes. She was genuinely happy for these two young women, perhaps fondly remembering her own younger days. I watched her as she got off the plane, with her sensible winter coat and her very normal wheeled bag. I thought that she, too, might be dismissed as plain and rather old, but that this was probably one of the most beautiful women I had ever seen. I was captivated by those crinkles around her eyes, and I hope that when I’m 50, my smiles will crinkle the corners of my eyes, too.
Two men came from a security company to empty an ATM and a currency exchange machine, about eight feet from where I was sitting, at JFK airport. Escorting them were two officers from the Port Authority, who stood and appeared to chat casually with each other, but who had the right side of their jackets pulled back so that their sidearms were visible and who clearly were paying attention to every person around them. They seemed to ignore the two ATM guys, who also seemed to ignore them, but I know that all four were very aware of each other. I tried to immerse myself in my novel, so as to appear as innocuous as possible, but I found their interchange fascinating. At one point, another waiting passenger spoke up, “Hey, do you know who won the football game last night? Did the Giants win?” One guy looked up from the ATM and said, “Sorry, I don’t work here.” I don’t think he heard the question, and had only realized it was directed at him when nobody else answered.
Last night, I had a dream that included a feature I’ve dreamt about before: driving in my car, and having the brakes not work when I’m in reverse. The fun thing is, in the dreams, I always know that this has happened before, and I’m usually thinking, “Dangit, I really need to take the car in to the shop.” The one last night had a little more to it, though. Maplestar’s dad had just flown in for our wedding, and the three of us were making a quick grocery run to pick up just a couple of things. I was leaving the parking lot, and for some reason, I reversed about halfway down a lane in the parking lot. Then I started to brake, but nothing happened. Three-quarters of the way down the lane, another car started to enter the parking lot. Still no slowing down. All the way to the exit, which was an intersection across a busy road, I still had no brakes. There was another car coming, but I managed to maneuver so that I got around both cars without anyone crashing, and so that I could put my car back into drive and stop it. And all this while — you know, all 2 or 3 seconds of it — I wasn’t feeling fear, just annoyance, and was apologizing to maplestar and his father. I remember saying something like, “Well, there weren’t any crashes, so everything’s fine now!” Of course, I woke up immediately after.
After I woke, I remember that feeling of heightened awareness, that I was paying very close attention to what was happening around me. But at the same time, I wasn’t in control of it all. I was in a car that was driving in reverse, and I couldn’t stop it. I’ve needed — and gotten, thankyouverymuch! — plenty of lessons from that deep place about having to be in control of everything. Of course, that seems a little too obvious an interpretation to me, and it leaves out the fact that I was driving in reverse. Another possibility that’s just occurring to me now is that my past is out of my control now. When I drive my car in reverse through my memories, I can’t change them, can’t do anything about them. So whether the lesson is that I can’t change my past (but can control how I shape my future), or that I am in danger of losing control of myself when I take a jaunt through my memories, or perhaps some of both, there’s some interesting material here to ponder.
So… I’m showing up now. I’m trying to pay attention, and there are so many wonderful things all around me to notice. I’m getting the feeling that something big is right around the corner for me. I just have to keep showing up for that walk and to keep paying attention to what I see.