My Own Best Teacher

I’ve been restless lately, feeling stuck and dissatisfied, treading, yet again, on paths of depression worn so well in my mind that they’re seemingly permanent. My determination to re-route these paths, though – to create beautiful new neural pathways as my friend Sue puts it – is just as persistent.

So yesterday, in an attempt to shake my low mood, I reached for what I thought was both a tried-and-true cure and a step in a new “minimalist” direction: a one-room cleaning and de-cluttering mission. Much of my online reading lately promises that if I just cut back on the crap in my life – excess stuff, excess commitments, anything that I just don’t love – my life will be so much easier, more peaceful.

It’s a compelling argument. Could it be that easy?

I target the guest room which has lately deteriorated into a domestic dumping ground. One bed is piled high with bins of miscellany from my daughter’s bedrooms:  puzzle books, school notes, photos, orphan socks and single earrings. On the bedside-table, there’s a stack of movies left over from my grandson’s last sleepover, along with fresh sheets and the carpet cleaner I used to clean the urine-soaked mattress. Baskets of fabric and ribbon overflow on to the floor alongside piles of clothes in various states of repair, mending jobs half-done, alterations aborted part-way through. The closet is crammed from top to bottom, with boxes of memorabilia and summer shoes covering the floor and out-of-season clothes filling the rod above.

Once done, the room looks worthy of a magazine-cover. Beds neatly made. Dresser and side-table tops clear. Mending jobs sitting neatly stacked on the sewing desk, ready to be tackled the next day (and yes, I did tackle them). There’s new space on the floor of the closet and breathing room between the clothes hanging above.

I stand in the doorway and survey my work – four hours of it – but I don’t feel any better. What I feel is utterly flat. Not to be deterred, I tackle my clothes, heading to my bedroom closet and pulling on pants that are at least ten years old. The style is classic and flattering though, and they’re in very good shape (because, of course, I’ve rarely worn them). I model them for my daughters.

“Mom, those look great on you.” Lindsay says, “Why don’t you wear them?”

“Because I have a hard time getting out of my pyjamas in the morning?”

She shakes her head. I try on three more pairs of pants, along with a white dress shirt, and her response is the same every time.

“If I knew you had those, I would wear them,” she says when I pull on a pair of high-waisted dark wash jeans with silver buttons.

“Huh,” I say, twisting around to check my rear-view. “Yeah, they fit pretty nice, don’t they?”

She rolls her eyes.

“The problem isn’t the clothes, mom,” Sarah, my younger daughter observes, “The problem is you.”

She’s not being snarky. She says it with kindness – and a hint of exhausted patience – and she’s right.

It is me.

I give up. In fairness, I suspected this would happen. It began with a realization one morning a few days ago– it always happens in the morning, doesn’t it? – that my life is akin to a giant cruise ship, one I don’t want to be on, one I don’t remember booking, or if I did, I have to wonder what I was drinking at the time.  Consequently, getting rid of my stuff is like re-arranging the deck chairs, when really, what I need to be focussing on is how the hell do I turn this cruise ship around? No wonder the clean-up job leaves me feeling flat.

What cruise ship you ask? The aloneness. The marriage to a husband who is perpetually absent and with whom I have little in common, whose other passions and attachments seemingly outweigh our own; the soul-deadening  job that leaves little creative energy for my writing;  the expensive lifestyle that I have no hope of sustaining on my own. The lack of sustaining relationships around me. The constant cleaning up after other people. Have I missed anything?

How do I fix all this?

This is the question that follows me today, as Lindsay and I drive to a Barrie, a city to the south of us. She’ll spend several hours coaching and training at a cheerleading gym. I’ll head to the book store cafe, where I’ll have uninterrupted time to read and write among the dull noise of people chatting and drinking coffee.  When I walk through the doors, I am met with the smell of fresh books and espresso and am immediately drawn in by the displays lining the main aisle. I pick up Glitter and Glue by Kelly Corrigan, an author whose books I enjoy. I read a few pages distractedly then jot down the title in the wish list I keep on my phone. I wander to the next table and pick up The Aviator’s Wife, an historical novel about the life of Anne Morrow Lindbergh and her marriage to the famed pilot, Charles Lindbergh.

“He flew in and out of her life like an irritating mosquito,” I read.

I know exactly what you mean, I think, then immediately put it down. The last thing I need is someone affirming my current opinion of my married life, even if it is only a character in a novel.  I don’t need to become any more entrenched in ugly thoughts than I already am.

I wander through psychology and self-help, cookbooks and yoga, then along the aisles of biography, my restlessness growing with each step. Suddenly, I realize what I am doing, frittering time, half-looking for a book that will offer a way out of my itchy mood, (when, if I stood still for a moment, I would remember that I already know the way out).  I rub my forehead and adjust my winter cap, knowing that I am looking for a quick fix, and that always, always backfires.

“You twit,” I say.

Apparently, I’m within earshot of a man perusing the A-H section. He looks over at me quizzically.

“Just talking to myself,” I say, shrugging. “Realized that I’d forgotten something.”

He nods and goes back to his reading.

I resolve to stop wandering and sit down to write instead, to get back to the blogs that I’ve neglected in recent days, the three post deadlines I’ve missed in a row.  I will feel better, I tell myself, and after an hour in the bookstore café, a cup of Earl Grey tea untouched beside me, I do feel better. The best I’ve felt in days.

I’d stationed myself at a spacious table, then fired up my laptop and rifled through a few blog post starts. I’d come across a few lines I’d written about a fellow horse-back rider working with a scared, stubborn horse, one who kept refusing to go over a jump.  Just. Stay. Still. I’d written at the top. I had no idea where the piece was going, but I liked the idea, and for the next hour, the writing just flowed. Finally, I stopped typing.

And then I see what I’ve done.

“Imagine if we all did this, approached our problems, the scary things, with this kind of tenacity and calm. With a patient coach alongside us, someone who has been there and can show us:  it is not so scary. Imagine if we could step out of our fear, if we could tiptoe up and examine what frightens us: the file we’re afraid of at work, the one that we’re not sure we can handle. The conversation we don’t want to have. The speech we’re afraid to give.  Imagine getting up close, and seeing that the story we’re telling ourselves isn’t so solid – like those flowers Cathy held up to Dylan’s nose – that they are just flowers, and the scary part is all in our mind.

Meditation works like that. The mind kicking and reeling and bucking and refusing. Meditation allows us to get up close, to examine what, at first, appears terrifying, or maddening, or agitating, but upon closer reflection, isn’t so scary after all. Especially if you have a capable teacher by your side (whether in person or on the page).  Meditation is a way in, a way to walk up close and take a hard look.”

I look around the coffee shop where I’m sitting, almost saying aloud: Did I write that?  

Much as I’d love to read The Aviator’s Wife, or Glitter and Glue, or have a hard copy of The Willpower Instinct handy on my bedside table, I’m so glad I didn’t take any of those to the cash register today. I’m also glad that I sat still long enough to reach inside myself for an answer.  And I did find a healing direction in words after all. I just didn’t expect them to be my own.