Church

There’s an adorable English mastiff I saw a few times in the yard adjacent to the Lutheran church a block from my house. There’s a living quarters on the premises, so I guessed that that the dog belonged to the pastor. One day an elderly gentleman in that yard asked me if my dog’s frantic barking at his dog was playful or otherwise, and I guessed that he was the pastor.

“I’m pretty sure it’s playful – it sounds playful – but he’s a rescue and he’s so big that I don’t want to risk it,” I yelled back across the street. When I got home after that walk, I went to my whiteboard to-do list and wrote, “Go to church/befriend pastor.”

So yesterday, that’s what I did. In addition to that particular ulterior motive, I’ve been wanting to go to a place of worship lately. I enjoy the sense of community and the singing, and generally, I find church services to be a good reminder to be a good person as often as possible.

It was a windy day in Chicago, so there wasn’t anyone standing outside to indicate which door might be best to walk through, so I went through the front door. Opening the heavy wooden door was a dramatic affair as it blew open violently, and the wind rushed in along with a hurried me trying to get out of the cold. The small group of greeters standing inside looked at me wide-eyed and one said, “Well hello!”

I said hello and grabbed a program and started to walk by them, when they stopped me saying, “Do we know you?”

“No, I don’t believe you do!” I said, and I turned around and shook each of their hands (all of them were super awkward about it, but sweet, so I stopped myself from making snide remarks).

I introduced myself to the pastor, and laid the groundwork with a reminder of who my dog was. He’s loud, and a doberman with a tail, so he stands out in a crowd. The pastor remembered him and me by proxy.

The inside of the church was beautiful. Ornate dark wood carvings lined the front of the church, and behind that was a colorful abstract stained glass window. The same type of glass dotted the walls alongside the pews. The carpets were a deep red. Overall, I’d describe the space as warm and cozy, even in spite of the high ceilings and ya know… the churchy vibe.

By the time the service started, I was the only one seated in the first 4 rows, and the back of the church was only sparsely populated. Since I hadn’t been to church in so long, kept turning around to check if people were standing or sitting at certain parts. For the most part, I enjoyed my time there. The song selection was a bit dated, and I know we all love us some organ music, but if I slept less the night before before, the tempo would have lulled me to sleep.

The takeaway from the sermon was that we should more mindfully dole out small measurements of love to improve the relationships in our lives. Jesus said in Luke 6, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you… Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you.”

To the children, it was put in terms of baking cookies, and the pastor handed out chocolate chip cookie mix packets to the children at the front of the church. My favorite part of the whole service was the audibly whispered, “YESS!” from one of the parents behind me.

After the service, I glad-handed downstairs between bites of homemade banana bread and sips of coffee. I put four boxes of Girl Scout Cookies on hold in the school office (I was supposed to go get them today, but my check didn’t go through, so I’ll go get them tomorrow – it’s only a block away after all). I walked back into the cold grayness of the outdoors with a smile on my face.

I don’t know how often I’ll go back to this particular place of worship, but I’ll definitely go get those cookies and introduce my dog to Cici (that’s the mastiff’s name). I also hope to open a philosophical dialogue with the pastor while our dogs play.

I spent a lot of time in churches when I was growing up, and the similarity between what Jesus said and what Buddha said (according to my recent readings) is striking. I mean, I always knew that, but churching it up yesterday reignited that bit of knowledge. Now I want to check out a synagogue, and a mosque, and a non-denominational spiritual center to see how everybody else is doing this whole “spread the love” business that I’m such a big fan of. Maybe I’ll learn something, or maybe I won’t, but I’ll be going in with an open mind and an open heart to see what there is to see, and spread some love of my own.

Sitting and Breathing: Day 10

It was back to the sitting and breathing today for Body Sensation Meditation. For somebody who humble bragged (maybe just outright bragged) about their body awareness just two days ago, today was strong dose of reality. The point was to just sit cross-legged on the floor, back straight, and focus interchangeably on breathing and each bodily sensation that arose during the session.

Based on the sensations I felt today, I am pushing my body really hard lately. I was to focus on pleasurable and painful sensations alike, and today was largely filled with painful sensations. I felt the tension in my lower and mid-back from work and my litany of personal projects. I felt the tension around my knees and the muscles immediately around my knees, likely from the same activities. I felt the soreness in my shoulders from playing with the dog.

What I found most interesting is how my mind was able to so thoroughly and completely lose itself in thought today. On a day when I was supposed to be focusing on painful sensations, my brain kicked the imagination into overdrive, and I’d catch myself in very different times and places every time I’d return to my breath.

I gotta get to work soon. I wonder who will be there. I wonder what I’ll be doing today.

Then I’d imagine myself already at work, talking with my coworkers. Then I’d imagine getting off of work at 1:30am, and the long public transit route home, and how shitty it would undoubtedly be in zero degree (or under) weather. Then I’d feel how cold my toes were, which would bring me back into my body, and back to my breath.

Ow, my back is really hurting. Probably from all the bending over and weird angles I put myself in to finish the bar for my living room.

Then I’d wander into a hypothetical conversation with my mother about how I’m spending money frivolously, and should really be focusing on other things right now. “I spent as little as possible making this thing!” I’d argue. Then I’d play out the rest of that conversation, and I’d work myself up into a tizzy over a conversation that never happened. By the time I remembered I was supposed to be focusing on my breath, I was already pretty agitated. Then the pain came back.

I wonder to what extent I’m doing this with other pains I’m experiencing, both physically and emotionally. I wonder if my mind’s tendency to experience pain in the form of a drive to distract myself with something – anything – else is bleeding out into the rest of my life. I bet it is! I have no concrete evidence for that, yet, but I’ve got a hunch, so now I’ll be on the lookout for it.

Returning to the pain (burning, dull, aching, stiffness, soreness, tension), I was reminded of the time I modeled in the nude for a painting class. I chose what I thought would be fairly easy positions to hold for 20 minutes, and realized on the first attempt that it was harder than I anticipated. Even sitting cross-legged on the floor, on a pillow, can ware on you after a while. I started anticipating my alarm, largely because it symbolized the end to my pain, or at least the potential pursuit of another distraction (namely, writing this).

Funnily enough, when I finally surrendered to the ideal that there would be no alarm, and that the future was irrelevant to my current experience, the alarm went off. Luckily (after writing this) I have to start getting ready now, otherwise I’d be strongly inclined to do my ab workout before work, which I don’t think would do much in the way of easing my muscular tension. Maybe I can squeeze in a routine before work tomorrow, though…

Sitting and Breathing: Day 3

I’ll admit, I didn’t put a whole lot of sitting and breathing into my day yesterday, but I did regularly think about today’s practice session with eagerness and excitement. Today was 20 minutes of Hearing Meditation, which involves (for me) closing my eyes and actively listening to the world around me.

I was nervous about setting myself up not to hear the alarm again, so I put extra effort into choosing the right sound (I landed on Sun-Shower which has some running water noises and some birds chirping and shit), and I went with Airplane Mode over Do Not Disturb. I set the alarm for 21 minutes, spent some time situating myself on the foot of my bed with my legs crossed, my back straight, my hands on my thighs, and my attention on my first few deep, intentional breaths.

About a minute in, some sort of lawn mower machine (I realize it wasn’t actually a law mower, as the winds outside are currently quite high, and there’s like 7 inches of fresh snow on the ground). This machine ended up taking a lot of my attention at the start, and throughout the session, which I found slightly aggravating, but mostly amusing.

With my eyes closed, I imagined myself suspended in nothingness – a boundless white space – and let the sounds around me populate that space as they rose and fell. My radiator squealed, popping suddenly into my consciousness void, then it disappeared into the whiteness again when its work was done. The wind whipped against my window, momentarily bringing both of them into focus in my mind’s eye.

I felt myself looking toward each of them internally, or to put it a different way, I felt my shapeless self awareness physically drift through the nothingness toward them. Focusing on my breath again after I drifted, brought my attention back to the center of my being/awareness, so I better understand why people say it’s “centering.”

Then some douchey itch popped up in my left ear. I refocused my attention on my breath for some centering. Then the little bastard moved to the left side of my scalp. Breathing. Then the right side. Breathing. Then it settled in on the right side of my penis for most of the rest of the time, before finally landing in my right nostril toward the end.

“Fuck, am I doing this right?” I thought. “What defines doing this right?” I played myself the memories from my readings and some videos I’ve watched on meditation. “Everybody strays, everybody has intrusive thoughts and emotions. The point of meditation is to keep refocusing your attention on the present. What are you hearing right now?”

Of course, I had recurrent, fleeting anxiety about whether or not I had done the alarm right this time. I also kept envisioning the alarm going off – anticipating the end of the session. Otherwise stated, I spent quite a bit of time not adequately focusing my attention on the present.

Interestingly, I noticed that much of the time that that was happening, I was also unintentionally leaning forward. My body was contributing to the anxious, future-driven feedback loop my mind was in. Breathe in… Breathe out… I sat back again, and focused on my breath, then found myself in void again, ready for auditory input.

My cousin was walking my dog, and returned toward the end of the session. His excited footsteps brought him in and out of my void. His crying did, too, but the crying was different. Instead of popping in and out like with all the other things I was hearing, the crying solidified him in my mind’s eye. Even when he stopped actually making noise, I could still see him in my blank space. I wondered what he might need, and lent him a lot of focus despite my best efforts to stay in the moment.

My guess is that the noises he uses to tell me he needs things resonate more with my innate nurturing side. I’m programmed to lend him – the creature I care for – more attention emotionally, physically, and mentally. The question that I have as a result of that is, “To what extent is that playing out in the rest of my life?”

I don’t just mean with him. I mean, to what degree am I allowing lingering thoughts to eat up my ability to listen to the rest of the world? How much am I missing out on because I’m not living in a moment while I’m plotting for my future or dwelling on mistakes I’ve made in my past?

I guess that’s one of the points of meditation practice – answering those questions by continuously refocusing my attention on the shit going on right now. Per usual, I would prefer to have my answers right this second, but that seems to happen less and less these days, and I’m slowly coming to acknowledge the power of delayed gratification.

Sitting and Breathing: Day 1-ish

So this is sort of Day 2 in that I started reading Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation yesterday, but by the time I got through the first 60-some-odd pages, I learned that I would be meditating for 20 minutes each go-round, I should read the instructions a couple times before beginning, and I was only doing it thrice in the first week (every other day). Initially, I balked at the idea of reading the instructions over again, but then I thought, “If I’m gonna do this shit, I might as well do it all the way.”

So today, after my usual morning of walking the dog, making breakfast and coffee, and watching some random shit on Netflix, I sat back down with the book, finished the remainder of the material for Week 1, then reread the instructions on Breathing Meditation. Then I downloaded the audio files on my phone, and realized I didn’t have any software on my phone that would allow me to unzip the compressed file, so I downloaded the file on my computer.

Track 1 was a recitation of the directions I had now read twice, but I sat through those three minutes while I situated myself in the correct posture. Track 2 was the guided meditation portion, but I got about three minutes into that before I decided her voice was more distracting than it was helpful, so I opted in on my own practice (which sounds like a thing I should do, so I felt good about that). I went back to the dining room where I left my phone (I was encouraged to leave it elsewhere) to use it as a timer.

I put my phone on Do Not Disturb, and set an alarm on Pandora to play some classical musical after 21 minutes, then I watched my phone intently for the minute of setup I allowed myself to be up. When it hit 11:37 I threw my phone down, internally said, “Go!” and focused on my breathing. I felt the sensation of the air going into and out of my right nostril (apparently my left one is clogged or something). I centered myself with a few deep breaths, then fell into a more normal breathing pattern.

Planes flew by overhead. My dog started dreaming and growling in his sleep. This made me laugh, as it usually does. I returned to my attention breath. In… Out… I thought about how much easier this would be if I were simultaneously doing physical activity. Like yoga. Which I should really get back into. I bet I can find videos online and do those. I should also do an ab routine after this, followed by some stretching. Actually, the yoga would probably serve both of those purposes. Shit. Breath. In… Out…

Every time my attention wandered, I forgave the intrusion, and thanked myself for recognizing it and returning to my breath. My back started hurting. My legs started hurting. My new tattoo started hurting. I felt tension in my jaw, and when I relaxed that, I somehow felt tension in my tongue. I let all of them go. I adjusted my sitting position. I started to get antsy. I started to feel lightheaded for some reason.

“There is no alarm. There is only this breath,” I told myself. In… Out… My attention kept returning to my phone sitting next to me. When would I hear the sweet relief of classical music? In… Out… “Okay, we’ve gotta be getting close now.” In… Out…

Finally, it was too much for me in some way or another, and I almost jolted out of it. Funnily enough, I did that at exactly 11:57. The alarm was silent (apparently Do Not Disturb extends to Pandora), but I had made it the full 20 minutes. “Fuck yeah! That’s what’s up!” I said out loud.

I have the day off from Sitting and Breathing tomorrow, but I’m back at it again Saturday. I feel good for having done the thing today, but I’ve clearly got a lot of room to get better at this. I guess that’s why it’s called a “practice” – there’s pretty much always room to get better.

I’ve already noticed a shift in the way I interpret the goings-on in my day, and I’m excited to see what changes (if any) come about in my view of the world over the course of the next month. Stay tuned. More sitting and breathing to come.

Not Enough of This

Looking fly as fuck for my interview.

After the tail-between-my-legs return to my mother’s house so common in my generation, it was time to start working again. That meant applying anywhere and everywhere offering money for labor. After a little under a month, I was interviewed and hired by a small, family owned and operated boatyard. Per the Craigslist ad, I was to work in their front office as a sort of administrative assistant – a role previously held by their daughter who was now on her way to bigger (and undoubtedly better) things.

I was under the assumption that I would love working there. The harbor is beautiful, I love the smell of ocean air, and I love working at small businesses. There was a small yapping dog that ran around the shop, and a large cage with birds who added some color behind the desk. It was rundown, but clearly the regulars loved the homey feel, as did I.

This place clearly had a lot of room for improvement when it came to marketing itself, and I felt like I could really make a positive impact on their business practices and long-term marketplace relevance. The shelves were stocked seemingly at random, little was done in the way of digitizing, and there were no policies and procedures to speak of (I don’t believe I ever signed anything but a W-2), so I was excited to get to work.

I was in the office for very little time before they realized that I had muscle tone and a willingness to put it to work out in the yard. Having never worked in a boatyard before, I wasn’t exactly the fastest when it came to knot tying, and I had to ask a lot of questions, but I was hired as an admin assistant, so…

Anyway, I actually enjoyed the work for the most part. I had to pick weeds from the planters surrounding the parking lot, but I got to listen to my audiobooks while I worked. I had to lift and carry rusted slabs of steel, but I got to enjoy the beautiful weather (except when it was raining) of Southern California’s beaches. I had to carry large quantities of insulation and fiberglass, much of which got embedded in my arms, but… Actually, no, that one just sucked. The rest was pretty enjoyable, though.

Then the problems started. I talked more than I suppose was appropriate. I asked more questions than was absolutely necessary. Once I was asked to dust all of the shelves, and when I said I was done, the owner went immediately to the only shelf I had overlooked (it was the highest shelf and it was completely covered with signs), and ran his hand along it. He threw his hand up in my face, putting the coating of dust on display, and said, “I guess you just don’t feel like doing the things I ask you to do, huh?”

Can’t really fault him on that one. I didn’t dust the shelf. That was my bad.

Another time, though, I was actually working in the office (ya know, the thing I was hired to do given my years of experience working in offices and marketing for small businesses), and I realized that there was no call log. So, I took it upon myself to spend ten minutes drafting a sheet that could be printed regularly, and give whoever was answering the phones the chance to record information about the people on the other end – why they were calling, who they were, what their contact information was – so that that information could be used to follow up at a later date.

When I explained this to the wife, she was all about it. When I explained it to the husband, he said, “You never heard of Post-Its before? Ya know, those little yellow pieces of paper with sticky stuff on the back?”

“I have,” I said, “but this is a more organized way of keeping track of who calls and why.”

“I only care about the people giving me money!”

“Well everybody who calls is potentially someone who just hasn’t given you their money, yet.”

“Oh, so you know how to run a boatyard now?!” he spat.

“No, but I do know…”

“I’m seeing a lot of this!” He did the hand open-and-closing thing, like hand shadow puppet prattling on, “and not enough of this!” and he clasped his hand shut, and stormed off.

Well fuck this, I thought. I didn’t quit, and I wasn’t fired, but I did get a call the next day saying that there “just wasn’t enough work to do in the office right now,” but I would definitely be getting a call back when business picked up again. I never got that call, and I opted out of telling the wife that her husband’s stubbornness, unwillingness to adapt, and dickish nature were running their company into the ground.

I did get the chance to learn a little about boats, and I definitely got a lesson in humility, even if it was unintentional. I learned that starting again at the bottom isn’t the end of the world. I learned that showing up on time, working hard, and doing a job thoroughly and correctly without backtalk will get you far. I also learned that there’s only so much douchebaggery I’m willing to put up with in the workplace, and that dude had more in his gnarled pinkie than I was willing to tolerate in a whole human being.

Would I do it over again? Probably. But I’m a glutton for punishment and good views, and speaking solely in those terms, that boatyard had it all.

Purposefully Lost

I try to make a habit of getting lost whenever I’ve got some free time. Years ago, I’d drive around the back roads and farmlands of California, turning whichever way the wind took me, and enjoying the scenery before making an effort to find my way back. Now, I spend time walking my dog along different paths as often as time will allow. The best part about being lost comes when you allow yourself a bit of presence.

There you are, not entirely sure where, subject to a completely new environment filled with sounds and sights and smells that in all likelihood, are familiar to you, but with a subtle tinge of newness.

Just the other day I stopped at a house that I was captivated by. I had never seen that color of door, that type of wreath, that arrangement of stones, those hearts painted on its staircase, and that sign telling me that they were glad they were my neighbor (not in the photo, sorry). It was striking, and had I not had my head on a swivel, I would’ve missed it completely.

On a similar route recently, a middle-aged woman with short, salt-and-pepper hair and high-end winter gear nodded at me with a smile as my dog barked frantically at three dogs in a window above us. I took precautions and went around her, but something in her eyes told me she had something to say, so I pulled out my headphones, too.

As it happens, she also had a rescue dog that was quite reactive and around one year old when she got him. He’s a bully breed, so she was able to sympathize with the kinds of looks I get when my dog gets loud. She also saw past that, and remarked about the “special connection” he and I clearly shared. She also complimented him on his vigilance. We talked dog books for a few minutes, then she thanked me for stopping and we said goodbye.

The wondrous thing about being lost is that it affords you so many opportunities for discovery. It allows you the chance to dwell on how beautiful or interesting something is just for the sake of doing it.

Many of you are aware that I’ve felt lost lately. I’d go so far as to say it’s concerned you. Given the discomfort most people feel when they’re lost, that’s a pretty fair emotional conclusion. But this is me we’re talking about, and I thrive when I feel lost.

I’ve had the opportunity to reconnect with my sense of wonder and mysticism. I’ve had the chance to solemnly reflect on my immediate surroundings, and take in the positive parts of them, and glean information from them that I wouldn’t have if I had been ceaselessly moving forward, head down, headphones blaring.

I am a passionate person. I am, therefore, passionate about a lot of shit. So, instead of fighting that, I intend on using it to propel me forward. I intend on taking all of the parts of my past that inform the person I’ve become, and turning it into a whole that I’m excited to tell you about. Comedy is a part of it. Design is a part of it. Writing is a part of it. Psychology is a part of it. Sales, politics, service… You get the idea. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I’ve found myself, more that I’m learning to appreciate being lost with a purpose.

I’m an advocate for consciously losing yourself. Take turns you don’t normally take. Have a heart to heart with a total stranger. Take a deep breath and enjoy the vibrancy of the world around you by staring at a door instead of your cell phone. You might find some peace in the minutia, like I did.

Dammit! I forgot to be funny again.

Whiteout Wandering

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We started onto the trail enthusiastically, some of us just having met, and all of us entering into the cold wilderness right out of the warmth of our vehicles. It was sunny, and so were our dispositions. We were all brought together by a love of the outdoors and shared connections in Berkeley, so we all shared similar world views, making for easy conversation.

“I actually used to be a search and rescue skier in this area,” one of our group said. And my friend had a Garmin tracking our route for portions of the trek, so we were pretty sure of ourselves as we powered forward, away from the Boreal ski resort where we left our cars. It still wasn’t particularly easy-going – all of us were degrees of youthful and fairly athletic, so we kept a decent pace and occasionally had to push through new packs of snow.

If you’ve never had to push through new snow on foot before, I can tell you that even with snow shoes, your feet sink down about two feet with each step. The snow shoes then collect snow on the way back up, making for a weighted-stairmaster experience even on flat ground, which is compounded by going up or downhill.

We reached our predetermined campsite as the sun started to set.  We all tamped down a portion of snow that would act as a wind and snowfall barrier for our tents over the course of the evening. Also, it created a hard enough surface to actually put the tents onto. Overly confident in our work, my partner at the time removed her snow shoes, and promptly sank waste-deep into the snow, filling her boots with ice shavings. She put back on her shoe shoes, and fought the feeling of frostbite by the fire for the remainder of the evening.

We also created a dining area by sinking a circle into the snow, with the center acting as a table, and the sides as a bench. We put the fire in the middle, and ate dinner and drank a little, and patted ourselves on the back for making good time on the way there, then retired to our respective tents for a well-deserved night’s sleep.

We woke up with the sun the next morning, and found a fresh powder over our tents. We started heating breakfasts and coffees and teas, consistent with our left-leaning palates. Just then, a man emerged from the trail leading farther into the forest. He was rugged-looking, by himself, and seemed to be in a bit of a hurry, but was happy to stop for some hot coffee. In exchange, he offered up his eggnog, which was still surprisingly a liquid, on account of its incredibly high alcohol content.

“You guys should really start packing up,” he said.

“Why’s that? We’re not that far off from where we started. Should be a quick hike out of here,” our “guide” said.

He responded by pulling out his radio, and clicking it on.

STORM WARNING… WHITEOUT CONDITIONS… IMMINENT DEATH… GET THE FUCK OUT OF THERE…

The woman’s monotone voice came in loud and clear, so we thanked the wild man for the info, bid him adieu, and began our tipsy packing as quickly as we could. We started the hike, and quickly realized that the altitude, morning alcohol, fresh powder, and steep uphill portions of this hike were not going to make things easy on us. Shortly after, the whiteout conditions the woman mentioned kicked into gear.

We were in a single file line, trading off the lead position (it’s harder at the front, as you’re the first to pack down the snow), and very slowly making our way back to our cars. My glasses fogged over every few seconds, and icicles formed on my beard and in my ringlets of hair. We were never more than a few feet from each other, but it was still difficult to make out the people in front of you.

We continued like this for a few hours, then the gentleman immediately in front of me turned to me, “I feel like we’re not going the right way.”

“Yeah, I’ve been checking my compass every now and again, and I’m going to go ahead and agree,” I responded. He and I were the only ones who brought compasses. I don’t recall why the Garmin wasn’t doing this job for us, but it wasn’t. We were following the rescue guy. Well, it turns out he hadn’t been up in that area for over a decade.

“Let’s go to the top of this mountain, then we’ll be able to see if we’re on the right track!” he yelled back at us through the flurries of snow. We were tired, and not particularly interested in a steep climb, but it was our best idea for the time being – we were quickly losing daylight.

We neared the top, and lo and behold, the lights of the ski lift could be seen through a five second hole in the cloud cover. And wouldn’t ya know it, it was in the exact direction that the two people with compasses had been quietly pointing toward for some time.

Reinvigorated by knowing where the hell we were going, we started in the direction of the lights. We realized we weren’t going to make it by nightfall, so we made camp for the second (and unplanned) night in a clearing between some trees, balancing the benefits of having wind cover against the concerns of snow-laden branches falling on us as we slept. There was still laughter and joviality in the face of generally shitty conditions.

The next day, we started off early. We were no more than half a mile from the cars, but there was no way of knowing that the day before. We got hot cocoa from the resort, and my partner sat in the car enjoying it while I lie on the frozen pavement fumbling with the chains for the tires – my cold fingers only responding to fractions of the instructions they were given.

Finally off the mountain, we stopped at a cafe for one of the most satisfying burgers I’ve ever eaten, and warm apple pie (not a euphemism). As the color returned to our cheeks, we laughed at our stupidity, and talked optimistically about when we might do it again. So far we haven’t, but we’re still degrees of youthful.