For the past year Iíve spent a few minutes each morning sitting alone in the dark, practicing contentment and mindfulness. But sometimes it feels more like Iíve taken up the violin -- the instrument I wish Iíd learned as a child -- and Iím just sawing away. While itís too late for me to be Itzhak Perlman, I hope contentment is still within reach.
A recovering perfectionist, I am always wanting things to be better, larger, cleaner, more exciting, or quieter. Just this morning I was tossing the dead tomato plants into the junk-heap of branches and clutching ivy rising from our years-ago attempt at composting. I sighed at this untamable corner of my life. Maybe we should buy a weed-eater to shred all evidence of how out of control things are. A curious longing coaxed me further until something white caught my eye. Admiring the tiny sculpture I picked from the grass, I began to recognize the pattern of teeth, perfect as grains of uncooked rice. A miniature skull, it was white as a rain lily, light as breath. I examined the fragile bones, imagining an exotic creature who secretly left his embodiment in our yardóa large lizard with green stripes, an ancient bird with white feathers on its underside . . . Suddenly, I jerked my hand away, letting the weightless skull fall back into the shadows. It was not the exotic thing I am always hoping to find in my life. I recognized those two slim front teeth from a mouse trap! Marvelous, our cat stalked by disinterestedly, swishing the black feather of his tail.
When I was growing up I spent years of wishing pennies, birthday candles, and Santa letters on the same two things: I wanted a father and a dog. I also wanted to live in a house, be a cheerleader, have straight hair, be friends with Marcie Wilcox so I could jump on her trampoline, and be adopted by my fifth-grade teacher, Mrs. Bell. Much later, I spent decades of wine-fueled late nights longing for a lover, a mythic soul mate, the other half of my broken self. Often, the magical one I had previously longed for lay asleep beside me, unaware of my already wandering unquenchable desire. With friends I was no differentóI adored the idealized qualities I saw in each, was deeply loyal beyond good sense, and ready to rescue at the drop of a hat. Dwelling in our shared intensity, I let an everyday disappointment set in and break my voracious heart.
Even now, I long for dinner parties to be memorable. I expect the candles, food, music and wine to move me to tears. I long for truth and beauty even more than Keats. Unsatisfied with polite compliments to the cook, headlines debates, or movie recommendations, I sit silent with the desire to hear: What was the scariest moment of your life so far? If you could change one thing about your past, what would it be? What one thing about you would surprise me? Where would you travel and why? What would you give up your life for? What would make you kill?
The bottomless desire of my twenties could not be quenched by cigarettes, art, alcohol, dancing, travel, punk rock, or foreign lovers, yet luckily faded before it completely exhausted me. Now in my middle years my intensity is corralled into respectable loves for my son, my husband, and my work helping others. While my closest friends share my passionate nature, like me they responsibly juggle children, partners, jobs, graduate school. We have each taken vows we take seriously as blood. We have already lost so much. We refuse to fail again.
Yet sometimes the familiar ache begins like a socket longing for a tooth. A lonesome voice coos: Look at me! Choose me! Admire me! Love me! I hate this cheap, annoying self. Maybe a desk job wearing Easy Spirits and linen is not my destiny. Maybe Iím better than a husband who cooks Burmese chicken and shares a bath with me every night. Maybe I can still be a good mother from an entirely different, more precarious perch. Maybe I am meant to be one of those free spirited mid-life women who drive a convertible and wear a crocheted bikini. OróI long to chant the Heart Sutra at 4 a.m. with the other monks and spend my days scrubbing cold floors. As I drive to work, wait through someoneís voice mail greeting, push my cart across the parking lot, I project myself right out of my very sweet life.
Luckily, I have a cat who leaves reminders that my ordinary life is quite stunning if I am present for its untidy details. For all of us, longing for something different is a habit. When we sit in meditation, part of our sitting is about accepting the gaping emptiness our craving aims to fill. While the brain works to fill the white space with to-do lists and fantasies, meditation asks us to just sit, breathe, observe, and accept.
For forty-plus years Iíve gripped tight on the rope of desire, a rip cord in case things donít work out as planned. Yet, when I watch my son perform his new hockey shot as the sun shines his hair golden through the leaves, or wake at dawn to my body arching with desire for the familiar one next to me, or just wait at a red light and feel the breeze through the open window, I gain courage. I open my hand and let go of my escape plan. And a funny thing happens. The tug-of-war that longing has on me tumbles away. Suddenly, it is clear to me: I have plenty.
When my heart
begins its familiar wandering, and dissatisfaction grumbles like thunder
before rain, I repeat to myself: plenty. To say it requires my lips to
form a smile. I have plenty. Like the tiny skull of a departed mouse,
each moment of my life may not live up to my wild desires, but it is
perfectly and bountifully adequate.