I was eighteen and living in Evanston, Illinois. It was summer and I'd just ended my first year at Northwestern University, and besides waiting tables at a restaurant called The Third Rail, which was near the El station (I think the name of the place was a joke, because the third rail is where you can get electrocuted), I had a six-week job replacing a secretary on maternity leave at this crazy, right-wing law firm that had John Birch types on their list of clients and alum. (Don't worry--I didn't help their cause. My main job was to file, my training "didn't take," and I just put the files away wherever there was room in the drawer.)
I had met the lawyer who found me this job on Rush Street, at a shiny, seventies-style disco (it was, after all, the seventies). He lived on the Gold Coast of Chicago in a shiny, high-rise apartment, and had seventies sideburns and seventies shiny shirts and a seventies beige shag carpet. I think the right-wing office in Evanston was just some branch of a big downtown firm, because I don't remember seeing this guy on the job, except for one time, later in the summer, when he came to town in his three-piece suit and took me out to lunch.
The only other thing I remember from the law office was that I didn't have proper office attire. I got my clothes then from two places: The Mexican Shop, a boutique featuring peasant tops, Indian wrap-skirts, Oaxaca embroidered dresses, and magenta and turquoise harem pants from Afghanistan; and thrift stores, where I went in for vintage looks like forties suits with padded shoulders and cinched in waists, or baggy Annie Hall tweeds and newsie caps.
One of my roommates in our summer apartment, Bill Grossman, dropped out of music school that year to join a ragtime jazz band that played music from the 30s. I was one of his groupies. My friend, Sue, and I would go to hear him play downtown in one of Chicago's many blues clubs, and then we'd sometimes stay out drinking with the band. Whether we partied with them afterward, or I went back to Evanston with Sue in a cab, I would sometimes wake up at dawn to hear Bill in the living room sitting zazen.
He had some kind of meditation gong, and its sound was pleasant, but not when I was hungover and had only slept for three hours and now had to get up and misplace files for right-wing John Bircher types.
Later, Bill quit the band and moved to the Dai Bosastsu Zendo in the Catskill Mountains. I was visiting him there at the end of a retreat when Ronald Reagan was elected president, and looking out at the fields of snow in this peaceful place while the words "nuclear winter" formed in my mind was one of those moments of cognitive dissonance that stayed with me for most of that decade.
Bill knew I was struggling to find balance in my life, knew I needed to train my roiling, restless mind if I ever wanted to find peace, let alone the concentration it takes to be a writer. But every time we sat on those round, black cushions that summer in Evanston when I was eighteen, I started giggling.
It's not just that I was young, and beyond young, profoundly immature. Bill and I as a team were all about two things: music and shtick. We did gags together. Once, I covered my face with a nylon stocking and walked into his room with my teddy bear and a bread knife, turned on the light, and said, "Don't anybody move or the bear gets it." Bill introduced me to Firesign Theatre, Burt and I of "down east" Maine, and inevitably, Monty Python. When we weren't listening to music, to Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings and Ravi Shankhar's Shakti and Pachelbel's Canon in D (which wasn't so ubiquitous then) and Mahler's big booming symphonies, all of them (Bill was a tuba player and Mahler was great for the wind instrument), we were listening to comedy, or performing our own improv, and laughing and laughing.
I didn't want to sit still then. I was on the run. From my mother, my childhood, and the messes I kept making in relationships by compensatory free spirit happy-go-lucky behavior, when I felt anything but lucky, and didn't really know what happiness was supposed to feel like unless it was extreme.
Sometimes when I read about people meditating I wonder if I am "doing it right." If you open up Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love to chapter/bead 51 (just as this blog is part of a 108-day series of meditation and writing, her book is organized in 108 short chapters like the beads on a mala) and you come upon this passage, meditation seems very, well, active:
The most fierce experiences come when I let go of some last fearful reserve and permit a veritable turbine of energy to unleash itself up my spine. It amuses me now that I ever dismissed these ideas of the kundalini shakti as mere myth. When this energy rides through me, it trembles like a diesel engine in low gear; and all its asks of me is this one simple request--Would you kindly turn yourself inside out, so that your lungs and heart and offal will be on the outside and the whole universe will be on the inside? And emotionally, will you do the same? Time gets all screwy in this thunderous space, and I am taken--numbed, dumbed and stunned--to all sorts of worlds, and I experience every intensity of sensation: fire, cold, hatred, lust, fear . . .When it's all over, I wobble to my feet and stagger out into the daylight in such a state--ravenously hungry, desperately thirsty, randier than a sailor on three-day shore leave."I love this book, and I love Elizabeth Gilbert (and if you haven't listened to her TED-talk on inspiration, it's a must.) She's smart and funny and disarmingly honest, and reading her makes me want to adhere to her mantra: "tell the truth, tell the truth, tell the truth." But as much as I am moved and entertained by her accounts of India, where I've spent some time myself, I think, wow, girlfriend, you just underwent the Iron Man of meditation sessions. It's sitting as extreme sport. She writes about it so well I can feel it with her, but I haven't experienced meditation like this. Maybe I'm just not built for extreme sports.
As a runner, at my most athletic, I never ran more than seven miles a day.
I've never been on the elliptical for more than 45 minutes.
I've never tried to meditate for more than half an hour.
Maybe I should. Okay, I think I will. Sometime before this 108-day cycle is through I'll try to sit for an hour, and then post about it.
But in Elizabeth Gilbert's case, perhaps you need to be in an Indian ashram surrounded by fellow seekers, while meanwhile going through a divorce and still getting over the hot-and-cold rebound guy. And maybe you need to be not only a fearless, open writer and world traveler, but also in your sexual prime to feel energy surge upward with such power and velocity. For me, that turning the inside outside and vice versa happened not in meditation but in actual mixed-up, messed-up life: my tumultuous twenties.
For me morning meditation is quiet. It's a 3.2 K, not a marathon. The energy moving up my spine warms my body as it meanders along, and when it reaches my face, I smile.
|When it's not too cold, Zoe does her meditation on the balcony while I do mine in the corner of my studio. She stares at the river. She can do this for hours and hours, a true meditation marathoner, whereas I generally sit for 15-20 minutes|