New Year's Eve, 2012. My husband and I meet my brother, Adam, and his wife, Pat, at a bar in Somerville. We talk about their children, grown up now, our parents, our lives, the New York Giants. Pat asks about my writing. “I haven't seen any of your columns lately,” she says.
“Your fans will worry about you. People get concerned about your health when you don't stay in touch with your columns. Have you been too busy to write?”
“I don't feel busy, but engaged, experiencing life more than observing it. I've started to counsel women with breast cancer and it's about being present with their stories. When I write, the scribe watches from a distance, and that doesn't fit for me right now.”
In September, I took a class at Insight Meditation Center in Cambridge, and I've been meditating every day since. Some students in the class spoke of a need to reduce stress in their lives and leave frenetic activities behind. I wanted to appreciate what it meant to “be” and not “do”. All of us wanted to slow down. Maddy Klyne, our teacher, told us to start meditating for just five minutes a day.
“Try to let go of your shoulds,” she continued. Did Maddy say that or am I articulating it now? Can I ignore all my to-do lists – the one that sits next to the computer, the one inside the computer, the others by the bed, in the car, and in my work appointment book? Maybe Maddy was talking about the shoulds with the nasty, critical voice that hurts, not about helpful ways to focus the aging brain. I do discard the task list that is part of the Google calendar and feel liberated.
Meditation is a different sort of observation – of the mind. I don't really know what I'm doing. Or is it being? I now sit for twenty minutes every morning. I watch the breath, noticing that “monkey mind” wander, and then I bring it back to the breath. Maybe I feel more centered in my days, or well-balanced, as my dictionary names it. Or maybe I'm accepting the struggle that is life. Buddhism, which I've also studied this fall, teaches that life is suffering. If that is so, I don't think that means we are to be miserable all the time, but that life is difficult – with financial woes, health concerns, work stress, parent/child, or marital conflict. But when we accept the struggle, the body relaxes, the breath slows. When we accept, not fight, we can respond in a manner that nurtures, whether that's with art, nature, music, good conversation and connection, or with whatever feeds the soul.
The best thing I'm doing in my life these days is pastoral singing for those in need of comfort – for those who are ill or dying, recovering from illness or injury, or just having a hard time. We, By Your Side Singers, rehearse twice a month. A group of ten to twenty from First Parish in Concord – a Unitarian congregation - we sing or chant a repertoire of relatively simple songs and tunes. There's a Buddhist meditation, a Hebrew tune, a hymn from the Unitarian hymnal. When two or three of us sing for someone at a bedside, our song eases the body's burden and heals the soul. At our rehearsals, we take turns lying in a lounge-like chair, and re-create soothing song for each other. Relaxed in the chair, breath slowed – I have the deepest sleep after these Thursday nights.
My husband points out that it's the breath that these two activities – meditation and singing – have in common. I watch the breath; I use the breath in song. And what is closer to just “being” than that? My shoulders drop a few inches, releasing any tension, when I sing. I'm not performing or proving myself to anyone.
At first, when I began the pastoral singing, I wondered if I had time for it. But now, when I sing at rehearsals, I never ask myself, do I have time for this? Life's too short to miss these chances to simply be present, to recall how good it is to be alive right now. Happy New Year.