Monday, January 24, 2011
It was an ordinary summer day. Well, an ordinary summer day for an animal feeling cornered. It started the same as all the other days; at 6:45 the ground shook along with my bed from the rumble of giant earth-moving machines as they started their massive engines outside my door. As they trembled the earth, each one sounded off its own high-pitched, ear-piercing, beep-beep-beep-reverse-warning signal that called out with each backing up: “Look out or be crushed!” ---
And “WAKE UP! NOW!”
This was my morning alarm clock every day for months as the street and park near my home were excavated to replace ancient infrastructures. It was my personal view of urban renewal along with my up-close and constant view of my own Inner Reactionary.
Still, in context of: ‘All the things that can go horribly wrong in life’ - it was a small thing. It wasn’t loss of home or health or loved ones. It wasn’t hunger, war or natural disaster. It wasn’t one of the ‘Bigger Things in Life to Be Survived.’ By comparison, it was one of the smaller things, but still, big enough in its constancy to seem HUGE! If there were ever an occasion for feeling crazy with complaint, this was it. All feelings of safety or being settled and comfortable at home were tossed out the door.
A grove of hundred year old willows were clear-cut in a day, ground down into nothing but a giant hill of woodchips - a heartbreaking shadow of what once was lush, green and alive. The Giant Machines tore and ripped at the ground, sending the wildlife fleeing out of the trees and bushes and into the neighboring yards. Every living creature, including myself, felt the squeeze and alarm of being cornered and closed in. Alarm that for me led to LOTS of complaining, moaning and turning music up loudly to try to drown out the constant pounding forces outside my door.
It didn’t help.
I tried ignoring it, but that was impossible starting every day at 6:45, awoken from a deep, sound sleep -- again. And again, and again, and again. This was too big to ignore. It was impossible with the piercing beeps and clawing at the earth all day long, the dirt and dust coating everything and the not knowing how long this could all last. Overnight, home had become a fitfully uncomfortable place to be with an endless timeframe. Irritation greased the already slippery slope, adding fuel for short fuses, curt words and tempers to flare. The choices were limited: be driven out of the house; learn to live with it; or go nuts - and nuts was looking frighteningly close and within easy reach.
William James, 19th century psychologist and philosopher said, “Wisdom is knowing what to overlook.” Simple instructions - all it takes is practice - lots of it. And practice and practice and then more practice. “You can’t chase two rabbits at once,” a Japanese zen teaching also tells us, or as William James implies: choose your rabbits carefully.
A HUGE part of finding ‘peace’ is determining which rabbits to ignore. Unfortunately, we often choose to give our greater attention to the negative ones -- the thoughts and reactions that we’re so good at spinning endlessly. If that weren’t bad enough, we add fuel to this crazy-making fire by gathering all of the bad news we allow ourselves to be bombarded with, unedited, 24 hours a day, making us feel weak in an overwhelming world. We’ll never run out of tragedy. We’ll never lack for worry or fear. The thing is, our lack of ‘paying attention’ makes us miss out on a great deal of the good that lives parallel to that ‘awful track’ - the good that helps to strengthen us so we can meet the challenges head on.
I’ve been here before, feeling cornered by circumstances. My mind consumed by troubles. We all have - and will be again - if we’re lucky.
Yeah, I said it -- lucky.
I almost ‘left’ this place a few years ago [a euphemism for ‘died’]. I got lucky. I got to stick around to smell more roses - and smelling all the roses of life became the most important thing to me. After you’ve been through rough times and survived, you feel easily that you should be given a break, receive a ‘Free Pass’ on trouble - at least for a while when you’re exhausted and recovering. You think you should only have roses in your life. But it doesn’t work that way. Ever. Life continues rolling on same as always with its two rails - the ‘Beauty’ rail right alongside the ‘Ugly’ one, never one far from the other, ours to learn how to ride -- both, together, simultaneously; ours to choose which to pay more attention. So, yeah, despite troubles, frustrations, worries and fears - all a part of the natural landscape - I’m lucky enough to still be here to have troubles.
You see, like most, I’d like to stick around a while to “smell the roses.” Unfortunately, we don’t get to have only roses. There’s no comedy without tragedy, no light without dark, no up without down, and no roses without shit. If we’re still gifted with life here on this messed up, troubled planet, then we’re always traveling on two rails at once, parallel and simultaneously, often with more choice than we believe if we’re not blinded by our own sense of powerlessness. According to Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl, we always have one power that remains -- the power of choice; choice in how we use our minds, what we attend to and our attitude. His intact mental survival of horrific circumstances was summed up when he said: “Remember the leverage point: my attitude.” If he could arrive at that, surrounded by death and destruction, surely so can I. The bar he placed for ‘Responsibility for One’s Own Mental Hygiene’ is a high one indeed, but still, within human reach. He was one of us, after all. He showed us our capability.
The two rails of ‘Beauty’ and ‘Horror’ live side by side - always. Always has been that way, always will be. Such is life here, no? You can’t have one without the other. Not in this place.
So, if I can’t have one without the other, well, I guess I need to accept the fact of having both and get on with the art of living and staying on the rails - both of them.
The months of relentless excavating outside my door, gave me plenty of chances to practice not falling off the rails; to practice keeping my attention constant and steady; to practice managing my crazy, frenetic, monkey-mind. It was this constant source of irritation and destruction that drove the lesson in. Along with a rose.
About a month into living with my new neighbors - the earth-eating dinosaurs, as I came to call them - I stepped outside my door to escape my home by taking a walk. My iPod was securely in place, feeding the calming sounds of Bach’s cello suites straight into my head in an attempt to override the sounds of destruction. The trucks and bulldozers were gnashing and grinding their way through their work - a sight and sound that was impossible to block out. They had been working all day, even through the rainstorm that had just finished pouring down. The sun was reappearing, the water on the streets rose in steamy evaporation. Everything was refreshed for a moment, washed in all of this cleansing rain.
I skirted the edge of the street a safe distance from the giant machines, trying as best I could to focus on the calming music rather than the ripping and tearing sounds. Two rails at once - the challenge was on: could I focus enough on the good one to drown out the irritating one? It wasn’t easy - nearly impossible, but I continued trying as I walked on.
Coming to a quieter corner, I crossed the street to gain more distance. That was when I saw it. There, in the most nondescript place, growing untended under a stop sign, not a part of anyone’s garden -- there it was: THE most beautiful rose I had ever seen in my life! I was stopped in my tracks. Bach’s cello caressed me with calming, soothing silkiness while the last few drops of rain that hadn’t yet evaporated clung to the tips of the petals - fiery, yellow-orange petals kissed with a blush of red --this delicate, boldly strong, perfect rose, born of fire and rain!
Taking it all in, I basked in the awe of this hushed, unassuming beauty that I knew very few would ever have chance to see growing on this curb under a stop sign. I drew in the warm, humid breath of the rose as its perfume ascended in an invisible cloud of what seemed the essence of hundreds of roses. The sight! The aroma! The beauty! The heaven on earth! The moment of ecstasy that can be spoken of, but never really fully conveyed. Rare, ineffable beauty.
In that epiphany moment it all came together: the Beauty and the Horror - and how they live side by side -- always. In the background, the sounds of machinery continued shredding the air, while before me I inhaled the purest, most pleasurable fragrance that lifted me upward. Ecstasy floating me higher while the heavy weight of gravity and irritation tried to tug and pull. Together. Always. Both.
I chose to float.
I floated home, floated through my day, floated into the night and into the next morning when the Giant Machines awoke me again. I laughed. They no longer irritated me - well, at least not as they had for so many weeks before. They no longer had ahold of me by the throat with the power to ruin my day.
That was the day they changed. Or rather, I guess I changed. Instead of the horrible ‘Invasion of the Giant Machines’ they began to look more like curious dinosaurs behind a fence in a zoo. After all, they were as big as dinosaurs, were threatening and made lots of noise like I imagined dinosaurs would, and they grazed all day while stomping on the ground. But they were also comical now, and I could finally laugh more than complain. I decided that I could live with dinosaurs - at least for the remaining warm months until winter would arrive and they would go into dormant hibernation.
That single rose inspired me. I revisited it again and again like an old friend. I took its picture to remind me to gather the good things, too, to not allow my mind to be primarily occupied with complaint and trouble. Keeping my eyes wide open I hope and expect to find more of the Beautiful and Good. It’s out there - in abundance. Or rather, it’s in here, in my mental garden - just waiting to be cultivated.
Cold Michigan winter arrived. The dinosaurs quieted. Things returned to normal. The earth is resting -- healing, laying dormant. The dust has settled, including in my mind. We await a new spring and the return of a new green.
I have a new mental health regime now: I take daily walks. Simple enough, eh? But not just mindless walks filled with my mental chatter of the day, but expeditions with eyes open - to see what I can see, to find what I can stumble upon in my wanderings, unexpected beauty hidden in nondescript places. It’s hiding perhaps under a most ordinary stop sign saying: “Stop! Look!”
It’s a good thing to practice - appreciating Beauty. You just might find it saves you one day from the dinosaurs out there stalking you. Saved, by choosing wisely, what to overlook.