on being unmindful

One would think someone who claims a writing journey of almost 20 years had learned a thing or two. I’m not quite convinced. Sure, when I was fifteen I wrote a poem about a tree and finding security with it, how I grow in tandem with the tree’s growth and how I discovered spirituality among all things nature. I also considered a tree to be like home. Thoughts of my young girl self were abstract, but I now discovered through my memoir writing journey how my conceptual considerations had evolved to something more refined and honed. Though still not convinced I had learned a few things, I understood through experiences I share in my memoir, Under the Birch Tree, how I made connections that always brought me back to that tree.

n-MINDFULNESS-628x314The word mindfulness is well-used in the common dialogue of memoir writers, yogis, spiritual practitioners, psychologists, and teachers, to name a few. In this age of continuous immediacy, mindfulness becomes ignored because of the overabundance of stimuli. It’s as if we need a constant reminder to lure us back in, to become centered once again and to hold strong to our filtering system. We tire at being mindful as we engage in a constant struggle to allow in those thoughts we deem good and block those we find disturbing or toxic. It becomes a daily battle where we are on the defensive when for just one moment we wish to be on the offensive. We look for relief, to let our guard down, to be free, to be ourselves, unbothered and vulnerable once again.

As I grew up, I experienced disconnections. It was as if I was on the defensive, warding off the effects of divorced parents, moving from the only home I ever knew, and not experiencing social interactions inherent with girls coming of age. How I longed to be on the offensive, to connect to mother and father, to friends and to a home that had changed in order to feel more secure, safe, all the feelings found when being at home.

It wasn’t until my early adult years when I saw connections that brought me back to home, to the where I started, where I grew up. Perhaps it was a mindful practice where overcoming internal dissonance allowed me to be open to the very sight of a birch tree, my first connection to home. Mindfulness had allowed me to connect.

BCALM-mindfulness-meditation-tree-top-sliderBeing open to making connections through the senses can lead you. I write in my memoir how in my adult years, birch tree sightings were spotting home as if an instant messenger, telling me to be comforted. My birch tree gave me a focal point to refer to, kind of meditative bulls eye to hit every time I stood in front of it. It kept me centered and reminded me that there will be times of difficult growth but the sun will shine on me the next day and I will have renewed strength. In my memoir, I share one of my experiences of how the darkness of winter accompanied me when I would walk home from work at the Embarcadero in San Francisco. I relied on my senses. I smelled the bay water and heard the lapping of the waves rolling in and clashing against the rocks along Ghirardelli Square. The twinkling dots of lights of the Golden Gate and the East Bay bridges were my guide. My filled senses kept me company as I welcomed the many connections that came with my openness. I was reminded of what Henry David Thoreau once said, “In my walks, I would fain return to my senses. What business have I in the woods if I am thinking of something out of the woods?”

When referring to mindfulness, we see an awareness of every moment and controlling of experiences. In the moment you are acting, not reacting, to life. When you are mindful, each action, word and thought is conscious. But I’d like to consider being unmindful. Of being unaware and unreacting to life, of being unconscious to actions, words and thoughts, of being on offense. To suggest being aware of every moment and conscious of thought and action is tiring and frustrating to always grasp for a state you can’t seem to reach.

Unmindfulness gives us the chance to consider the unawareness, the loss of thought, of controlling experiences, of not have any reaction to anything. Neutrality allows us to be in a suspended state of apathy where we can seek rest and relief of the mind’s work. It is when we allow our unmindfulness we can clear the fast traffic in our mind and allow for casual travel of thoughts.

My mind, void of thought and defensive reaction when walking home from work was open to the connections that found their way to me. I connected to sights and sounds, a place and touch as the cool, damp night air clung to my cheeks, in comfort and security that brought me back to home, to my birch tree.

As a young girl, I was on my way to figuring out what a tree and home had to do with me connecting to people and places. It was in my adult years when I had figured out that when maybe being unmindful the connections would find me as they did when walking at night along the San Francisco Bay.

the bathroom

The middle of the upstairs hall in the house on Carlisle Avenue was the kids’ bathroom where a bathtub paralleled one wall and a toilet filled the remaining small boxlike space. A beige Formica counter ran the length of the entire opposite wall with muddy blue double sinks planted in the long flat surface. And then there was the small window at the end of the bathroom with a plastic marble coating diffusing an outsider’s view – and an insider’s. The window remained open to a varying degrees to allow a clear view to slide through the narrow opening. The outside, a mix of sounds and smells and fragmented sights, was my connection to the outside as I experienced life’s growth in the bathroom.

When I was preteen, Mom hauled a tape player, cocooned for years, out from the upstairs closet. “Tell me who you think is talking,” she said. I waited as she laced the skinny brown tape from the plastic wheel though the track and picked up the end by a slot in another plastic wheel on the opposite side. She pressed a small lever and the wheels started to move in sync. A tiny voice sang from the machine and then incomprehensible chatter followed while the four year old was bathing. I was in my world then, content and safe in the confines of my tub in the kids’ bathroom. I didn’t realize an outlook to the world was behind the dim view of the closed window.

When I became a student of kindergarten, and growing into a big girl, I could sit on the counter while Ann, my older half-sister, would cut the bangs of my short pixie-haircut. Mom would crack the window to ease my insecurity and nervousness while I sat underneath the slippery Formica as Ann came at me with a pair of pointed scissors. Mom reasoned that the procedure would be effortless and speedy when fresh air from the outside mingled with the warm air inside.

Commensurate with my growing years, I grew my hair. And the bathroom window was raised from just a crack. I would situate my little body in the middle of the counter and hang my head over my sink – the one closest to the window – so Mom could wash my hair with Johnson’s baby shampoo. The counter was hard and unforgiving, but not as much as the curve of the porcelain under my neck. I strained to keep my head from falling too far back, giving my neck an ache and a crick. The noise of kids’ laughter and screams outside traveled through the window and comforted me as I looked through the openness, wanting to be out there. After I was towel-dried and combed out, I hopped on my green Schwinn and let the breeze take my honey colored waves, turning my head from side to side, to smell the cleanliness tickle my nose, engaging in freedom with my 3-speed. I had joined the outside.

Sometimes I would look in the mirror to adjust my uneven placement of pigtails, tilting my head to correct the imperfection and hoping the mirror would fix their crookedness. I gave up trying to right the wrongness and believed the bundles would work themselves out. The sneaky breeze through the open window nudged me to hurry up and join the other kids. I knew my friends were out there as I could see their busy legs through the window’s open gap.

Through the years, my image changed as reflected in the gold-framed mirror. I didn’t want the outside to know I was in the bathroom doing private things so I lowered the window enough to allow a draft of air. When I was in sixth grade, daily images of my wide mouth, pried open with tarnished silver braces, showed my struggle to paste tiny squares of wax on the sharp points of the teeth straighteners. And in junior high, applications of make-up, the silent smoothing of blush on my already warmed pink cheeks and the delicate strokes of black mascara, transformed a cute girl to a pretty lady. But then I was back to the hair drama where maybe pigtails weren’t the thing to do so I let the bundled hair pair loose. I thought to enhance my locks and sprayed “Sunlight” on my wet head to bring “natural” highlights to the honey-colored, already sun-bleached hair. I never let the spritz stay on long enough to see the effects because I was afraid my hair would turn orange. Growing to maturity, I propped a leg up on the sink curve to shave my legs for the first time, lightly stroking the razor up my shin, creating a racing stripe of silken flesh in the thick white foam. The newly tender skin on my legs made me stand no longer as a girl but as a teenager.

I stayed plugged in to the outside where the world kept moving at a pace I tried to keep up with in the bathroom. From my first few years in life and a closed window to connecting to the outside through the raised window, the bathroom witnessed my identity develop. The kids’ bathroom was a private place where it was just me, the mirror and the outside.

 

connections

 

My decision to leave my hometown of Chicago came without lengthy contemplation. After three unemployments in six years during my budding advertising career post college and eighteen months working in corporate banking, the city turned its back by not bestowing its wealth. My weary footsteps had marked every city corner, intersection, advertising and employment agency during my interviews and job searches. I acknowledged I had a bad attitude; I blamed the city for my inability to be happy with a job and myself. But I loved Chicago, too. I grew up in one of its suburbs; it was my home, where I came from. My love-hate relationship with my city was the catalyst to a change in my life.

While I lived in the city in my twenties I never ceased to see a cityscape coming alive. Dots of light blinked and shadows shifted against tall buildings. Blocks of darkness interspersed with occasional sun were dabbed among the streets bisecting city blocks. Lake Michigan’s water lapped the shoreline rocks, never reaching close enough to touch as if to pull me back into a night’s trance of the city mood. I would walk to Wrigley Field and buy a Cubs T-shirt and a Bears sweatshirt along the way too. I walked downtown, to my neighborhoods in Old Town, through Lincoln Park, Wrigleyville and then Lake View. The panoramic Chicago skyline wallpapered my thoughts. But soon my vision became worn and tired as I acknowledged an underlying conflict with a place that was my home.

Though I mingled with creative and motivating coworkers in advertising, my inability to get to the next job level, to connect with friends, to find a boyfriend left me questioning my place in the world. So I reinvented myself, capping my head with a new hat, and went to work for an international bank hoping my career change would give me new personal and professional opportunities. But it didn’t. After 18 months, I couldn’t make connections with my physical home in Chicago and personal place with others. My city could no longer calm my unsettledness. The streets of the North side buckled in their attempts to provide footing, telling me to move.

I headed west in August to San Francisco, the bank’s corporate headquarters, a month after I turned thirty, to a city known for its beauty, a place I had never been. I was destined to walk through this open door of timely opportunity, a voluntary retreat.  Self-confidence empowered me to be courageous and move away from all that was my familiar. I was grateful for the opportunity and my gratitude carried me.

I settled into my airplane seat and buckled up, a definitive statement where I would no longer look back. I was moving forward.

“Hi. Been this route before?” my seatmate asked.

“No . . . actually . . . first time.  I’m on a one-way ticket moving to San Francisco.”

I was excited to hear my words of declaration. “One-way” uttered the unusual, when round-trips were routine. I was on an adventure, to the unknown.

We spoke intermittently. He gave me his phone number telling me he lived in the city and he’d be glad to show me around. He was a messenger telling me everything would be okay.

I chuckled when thinking that the answer to my unsettledness was moving away from home to San Francisco. I had direction, exploring farther from my apartment, hiking in the Presidio in quiet solitude while absorbing the clean scents of the eucalyptus. Exploration among the giant redwoods made me giddy with freedom, getting lost in their shadows along narrow paths. Connections were made as I grounded to a new home with every step. However, a contrasting world was outside the gates. The glaring sun spotlighted zooming cars and groups of young people shouted and laughed while walking in animation.  I connected the dots from the Palace of Fine Arts to the Marina Green and then to the Bay to create a picture of my new home, never talking my eye off the cityscape and ocean’s horizon while trekking the Golden Gate Bridge. My footprints were established, marking my spaces and unearthing my place to be.

This was my new life where I was cleansed of past struggles and black clouds that traveled overhead with me, starting over with new people who would never know my discontented past. My inner strength was learned in gracious ways with a renewed carefree spirit.

By October the following year, the Bus Stop, a local bar, became my social gathering place.

“Your Bears aren’t doing well in this game,” uttered a deep voice.

George, the bouncer was standing near the door while watching the football game on the overhead television screen.

“You’re for the Bears?” said a thin-framed man sitting by the window. I noticed his thick, chestnut brown eyebrows almost meeting in the middle.

“I am, and I’m from Chicago with good teams. Which game are you following?” I asked as I pointed to each of the four television screens stuck to the walls.

“The Detroit game,” he declared.

“Are you from there?”

“No.”

“You’re not from here, are you?”

“No.”

“Okay, then, so where are you from?”

“North Dakota.”

I had to look hard to see his blue eyes set under those caterpillars nestled above and behind oversized glasses.

I never thought Mike was from California because his non-conformance to the fashion statement of the San Francisco preppy male told me so. His jeans and flannel shirt looked shrunk to his frame and were more in style of the North Woods than Union Street. But then I didn’t look like I was from there either; I was out of the uniform of khakis, white button-down shirts and chunky sandals with my Midwestern Levi’s, hard-soled shoes and a sweatshirt.

“What are you doing here?” I asked.

“I work here,” he said.

“And what do you do?”

“I work for a bank.”

“I work for a bank too, but I’m not a banker,” I declared to him.

For the first time I was okay with not having career but a job because I had a life outside of work, one that included connections to new friends and to a new home.

My newfound settledness offered a respite for me to learn life lessons. Passing years were required for evolution, to be massaged, to be absorbed into the stream of life and wisdom where each lesson was built upon learning from its predecessor. I would always get a job and there would always be a place for me to be. Hope kept my faith.

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My decision changed me and how I looked at my place in the world. I could not have left Chicago, my home, until time granted me the ability to be comfortable in my own skin and to risk leaving the familiar. I made room for present moments and to trust that life is good. I had to move away from the only home I knew to find a larger encompassing home with connections that mirrored their reach like the redwoods to the sky in the Presidio. Moving away was a gift to me and validation that I had made the right decision. And when I learned and understood my lessons, I met Mike.

I was thirty-five when I married Mike and I could never have been more ready.

My move from Chicago to San Francisco changed my life.

The Birch Tree – Child’s POV

A writing prompt from one of my writing groups was to write about a summer day. We were to write a scene, from 2 different POV’s – a child and adult, from a childhood memory. I pulled a scene from my memoir (in progress) where I was having my picture taken on my first day of kindergarten. When I completed writing both scenes, I realized I enjoyed writing the scene from a child’s voice. The sentences were short, simple and to the point. I found a child’s words more interesting and in a way, more defined with a stronger voice.

Seems like we always take pictures here, in front of this big window. It can be shady there or it can be so bright that when the sun blasts through the front window of my house Mom has to close the curtains to block out the heat. She says too much sun can damage the wood floor and desk. She says the wood will fade and dry out. I didn’t understand how the sun way up in the sky could hurt the floor way down here and the desk.

This is a cool spot anyway because my birch tree grows here. The front sidewalk comes between my buddy and the window. It stands really tall, and the branches are thin. When the wind blows just a little, the branches wave and the curly bark on its trunk wiggles. It tells me to look here and smile when I look at it. It must know I’m about to have my picture taken. Mom said this is a special occasion because it’s my first day of kindergarten. She has to yell a few times for my big brother Tim to come outside. He didn’t want to come because he would have to stand next to me for the picture and he hates to have his picture taken. He really doesn’t like to stand still, either. Mom keeps telling us to move this way, then that way, to get out of the shade. I know my birch buddy tries to protect us from the hot sun but its branches can’t shade my squinty eyes this time. While we wait for Mom to tell us to smile, I notice the top of my head tingles from the heat. It feels like my hair is standing up. My arms feel prickly too, as the sun heats my skin. Maybe the top of my head and skin on my arms are like the wood floor where I will dry out and fade. But I am turning bright pink. I have my new dress on. It’s short. When I bend over a little, my butt feels good because the air gets to blow on it. My dress is dark blue with teeny tiny white polka dots all over it and pictures of paint brushes and a board that has blobs of different colored paints on the front of it at the bottom. My white round collar is stiff and scratches every time I turn my head. I feel like a big girl, especially when Mom says I look cute. My red Mary Janes are the color of blood. I wiggle my toes in the shoe to get it on better so Mom can pull the strap harder to the first hole on the buckle. I think my shoes are too small. Mom is ready to take our picture. She tells us to stand straight, at attention like soldiers, and to be still. I fold my hands in front of me because I thought that would look nice. I stand still in front of the window with the back of my feet brushing against the yellow flowers. After Mom finishes taking the pictures, my wrists kind of hurt and so do my feet. Even though my feet are numb and my wrists burn and the top of my head is on fire, my birch tree stands in front of me, waving hello and telling me to smile. And I do.

My Pink Book

Taken from a 2000 word essay, this short is the beginning to the unfolding of my spirituality.

I heard the call. It wasn’t a whisper or a delicate voice or loud words urging me to transcribe thoughts to paper. The call did sound like an alarm, telling me it was time to awaken a dormant spirit. I was ready to give voice to my ideas, the beginning of my storytelling.

002When I was fifteen, a pink hardcover book invited me to fill its blank lined pages. A latch was glued to the back of the book and fit snugly into a lock glued to the top. I held my first journal in my hands, a gift from my mother. I think she thought every girl my age should keep a diary, especially a pink one.

I never felt I had to keep my journal locked. Under lock and key meant what was enclosed between the front and back covers was too private—that I had something to hide. It also seemed self-righteous, as if my words were sacred, only to be opened by a holy one. Such a book, shrouded in reverence, reminded me of the Holy Bible at church. When I was a child and Father Sullivan would say Catholic Mass on Sundays, the Holy Book traveled in the opening procession to the pulpit for the Gospel, then sat atop the altar in celebration of the Eucharist. Father would hold the Big Book up to the congregation, signaling the start of the Mass; the large golden clasp sparkled in the overhead lights, revealing an ornate design. The Book was unlatched and opened in ceremony. The holy words were set free as the pages were read aloud. I could almost see a spirit rise and travel from the altar to the congregation as a story was told.

Neither out of reach, nor out of mind, my pink journal rested on the middle shelf in the middle cubby atop my bedroom desk as if it was the center of attention where Nancy Drew mysteries, a black ceramic bank that was indeed a pig, and a small terrarium surrounded it. I lifted my book of words from its place, held it firmly in anticipation of forthcoming dialogue and carried it to a sequestered spot on the floor at the foot of my bed in ceremony, ready to commence writing upon release of the latch. The pages would be free and my words released. I didn’t want my written words to be cloistered. I wanted them to be open and available to me, to expand. I wanted them to breathe, evoking my spirit.

Journal writing fulfilled my need to organize my thoughts, to have a conversation with . . . someone, to feel not alone, to learn about myself. I was a little girl growing up, eager for clarity in an adult world I found disorienting. I believed that my vision of the world was not just about me but about all else living. I began to think about having a place and that there must be a purpose. I yearned for inner guidance to navigate my world, to understand that there are other me’s and houses and Carlisle Streets worlds away.

I lifted my bowed head in contemplation about what to write, not only acknowledging my immediate surroundings but also tapping into the beyond. I sensed a presence I could not define—an indescribable intangible. I didn’t question it or its purpose. I believed my spirituality was born.

Don’t Circle Your Target

Why write 3 full paragraphs leading up to your main point in your writing, when you can do it in one? I asked myself this question after reading a recent blog post, “The Art of Submission: Inquiring After Our Work.” Good title. I was interested in reading the post.

Like most nonfiction writers, I read anything I can get my hands on when it comes to guides and self-help books on writing. In my reading travels, I have never come across the writing expert telling his reader to write adapting a particular verbose angle concerning writing about something to explain his point. In more precise words, the author is not suggesting you use lots of added words in your writing to get to your point. You are only circling your target.

I found this post to be circling when she wrote about conducting an experiment. She wanted to see what would happen when she asked editors about the status of her submission. She told us what she did for her experiment but not until the fifth paragraph and a summary of her findings was revealed in the second to last parapraph. After almost 900 words and 10 paragraphs with one sentence breaks thrown in between some paragraphs, I believe this post could be better written and more effective if she cut her words to half the total.

A highly respected writer, editor and teacher, William Zinsser, who passed away recently, wrote “On Writing Well.” This is a valuable classic guide to writing nonfiction and should be an often visited staple to every nonfiction writer’s reading list.

Zinsser gets right to it in the first paragraph, second chapter, “Clutter is the disease of American writing. We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular construction, pompous frills, and meaningless jargon.” He believes the secret to good writing is stripping every sentence to its cleanest components. “Every word that serves no function, every long word that could be a short word, every adverb that carries the same meaning that’s already in the verb, every passive construction that leaves the reader unsure of who is doing what . . . weakens the strength of a sentence.

Though I appreciated the conversational, informal tone of this writer’s blog, she lost me as I started to read. I looked for the answer to “What is she trying to say” in her first two paragraphs and it wasn’t until paragraphs later, I think I may have understood.

According to Zinsser, writers should inherently query themelves: what am I trying to say? Look at what you wrote and ask: have I said it?

Don’t circle your target. Aim for it and hit it every time.

She ended her blog with good insight about how she felt about her experiment. Her post was more focused and I could answer my own question to what she was trying to say. Her good wrap-up hit the target.