“Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans”. This nugget of wisdom (attributed to John Lennon) makes me laugh and catch my breath at the same time. That gives it the ring of truth. In this cultural moment of ™mindfulness many more of us hear, say, believe this insight to be true: you can’t control life, gotta go with the flow. Yet, when it feels like life is actually “happening to us” we often still put up a fight.
In the last year of the first decade of the new millennium, a whole lot of unexpected life happened. What I discovered was my choice in how I interact with that river of life: I can grip on to my little floatation device “for dear life” (!), clamp my eyes shut, and just hope I’ll get through the rapids without a scratch. Or I can open my eyes to the beautiful views around me and enjoy my body’s ability to balance me in rocky waters. Occasionally, I may even feel like I am steering the boat, by allowing for the possibility that where it’s taking me may be where I wanted to go anyway. I just had not yet realized.
When my close friend Forrest became bedridden with back pain, eventually taken to the ER and diagnosed with bone cancer in an advanced stage, there was nothing to do but step on board that train with him, fast-tracked toward death. A journey that put everything into perspective. I had never before lost anyone I was close to to death, let alone witnessed their demise. And Forrest was not just one of many friends. At the time, he was what you might call my “best friend”. He was the only person in Seattle whom I knew I could call anytime, whom I could tell anything, who I knew would be there for me when I needed any sort of help in this new city, new life I was building. Losing Forrest meant losing my go-to person, my confidant. The fear of that loneliness to come in the aftermath of his death was more overwhelming than the fear of experiencing his death itself.
And then life took me by surprise: In the midst of grief and medical emergency, I experienced Forrest’s extraordinary graciousness and even humor, unexpected community with his family and the nursing staff, deepening connections with my other friends who were now there for me more than ever; and purpose, curiosity, and learning in the face of death. I felt more alive than ever. Why? Because I was more present than ever. When Forrest was admitted into the ER, my priorities became crystal clear. I spent as much time as I could at the hospital, everything else was secondary. The usual daily inner monologue of re-arranging my to-do-lists, negotiating work-life-balance, always feeling slightly guilty about not working harder for my employer – all that ceased. There was only one place to be. And from this clarity arose the calm and presence that I look for in meditation but have rarely experienced. Apart from small gestures to make Forrest more comfortable, the only gift I had to give was to be there, now, with him, alive in our friendship, facing death together. While some friends remained absent, fearful of seeing Forrest in this condition, some tried to protect themselves by being artificially upbeat, still others sought distraction in endless questioning and small-talk, what Forrest wanted, needed in the end, was love and honesty. We often sat in silence, I held his hand while he dozed or comforted him when the medications made him confused and fearful. At other times, our friendship was just like always: he was there for me as much as I was for him, taking a keen interest in how I was doing and rooting for my new relationship to work out. And then we talked about everything that matters most when everything is about to end. I learned about death. I read books by hospice workers to understand what Forrest might experience and need in his final hours, even beyond. I arranged for a support group from my meditation center to meet with Forrest and me weekly. I realized that at 33 it was not one day too early for me to begin contemplating death. That neglecting to do so will only increase fear and pain, while acknowledging death will make us lead more vibrant lives.
In practical terms, I was able to be by Forrest’s side as much as I was because my employer gave me time off, and because I wasn’t desperately dependent on a full-time income. This made me think again about the kinds of conditions I want to have for my income-generating work. On the one hand, I value the relative freedom and well-being that come with financial security and I will always save and budget responsibly. On the other hand, I now more fully appreciate the self-determination I have in my current job: I work from home, on my own schedule, for a collective of idealists who have neither the interest nor the capacity to closely supervise my work. This much freedom requires a lot of effort and confidence in terms of self-direction and self-reliance, but the benefit of having significant control over how I structure my time is well worth it. The thought of needing to get up at the exact same time each morning even if I’ve had a terrible night’s sleep; of being in an office all day even when the sun is shining; of losing so much time stuck in traffic and stuck at check-out lines because too many of us are locked into the same Monday to Friday 9-5 schedule; of having co-workers observe and distract me in a crowded open-plan office instead of being able to relax and focus in the familiar stillness of my home and stretch and feed myself how and when I need to – the thought of all that “normal” work life now goes against every grain of how I want to spend the majority of my waking hours. Losing control over how I structure my time feels like the ultimate loss of freedom.
I have been learning a lot about self-determination and flow from my partner, who works for himself, on many projects simultaneously, and travels a lot for work and pleasure (which he aims to make one and the same – usually successfully). We talk about why “work” nowadays refers mainly to working for someone else, why the question “What do you do?” rarely implies the many, many things we want and need to do outside of employment: Isn’t the “work” of cultivating my partnership at least as valuable? Cultivating my friendships, cultivating my garden, making food for myself and others, making gifts for loved ones, creating art, moving my body like it is meant to, learning about myself, the world, and others, resting and digesting – these are not just work, they are labors of love. In addition, it is just as essential that we have the time to take care of all the little day-to-day tasks that keep the physical framework of our lives in working order so that we can fill that framework with more meaningful experiences. Too many of us are neglecting our needs, outsourcing home-making, bypassing the fulfillment of working equally with hands, head and heart.
Beginning this new relationship in 2019, and wanting to allow for and embrace my partner’s lifestyle without losing myself, challenged me to find out whether I, too, could flow more. Balancing my habitual structures with the joy of spontaneity has me making more conscious choices every day: When do I need to choose discipline for the focus and productivity I want to achieve in my job? When do I need to prioritize my habits for the sense of ease and self-care they create? And when do I seize the moment to feel more fully alive? When do I allow myself to just say yes to the fleeting gifts that would otherwise pass me by?
THE LOVE THAT ALLOWS
Saying yes to life’s unexpected gifts has a lot to do with loving them as they are. The gifts awaiting us don’t always come at the precise time and in the exact packaging that we were expecting. In teaching me about flow and presence, this past year also opened my eyes to how my greatest challenges can be my greatest blessings. Meeting an unexpected event or another’s different point of view with curiosity instead of fear can send us on a fascinating exploration, discovering the vast and complex world of possibilities that exists just beyond our small minds and little selves. Grounded safely in the intimacy and care of my relationship, and all that I do share in common with my partner, I am learning to ease into accepting all the ways that he is different from me – and in my best moments I’m doing it with a laugh on my lips and space in my heart. Both of us practicing Compassionate Communication and Mindfulness has been invaluable in bringing, and keeping, us closer. My meditation teacher says: “Equanimity is the love that allows.”
I’ve long thought of my close friendships as the most valuable thing in my life. For a complete stranger, different and separate from me in many ways, to simply choose me, out of no necessity, to share the hours of their life with, to trust me with their most personal thoughts and feelings, and to hold mine in return, seems mysterious and precious and like an act of grace to me. In 2019, I found and deepened new friendships here in my new home, something that was not guaranteed when moving to a new city, country, continent in my early thirties – a phase of life when many people are already settled in their communities and less open to meeting strangers. How did I attract these kind, wise, solid women into my life? As one of them told me: “It takes one to know one”.
In addition to individual friendships, I found community as well. The longing to be part of a “tribe” has gained new meaning and a surprising momentum among us millenials. Up until recently, I thought of myself more as someone who preferred to either be alone or in one-on-one relationships. In the past year, I completely revised that assumption about myself. I joined not just one, but several tribes, and recognized that I neither want nor need nor should do it all alone. I now belong to an urban gardening collective, a meet-up of Highly Sensitive Persons, a NIA dance group, a writer’s circle, a Buddhist sangha, and the circle of friends around my partner. The writers I’ll likely see just once a year but knowing we will meet again spurs on my writing. The HSP’s I see once a month at most, but we share some of our most personal struggles, deepest thoughts, and greatest strengths with each other. My dance group I just make “small talk” with before and after class, yet our interest in each other has a sincerity that allows us to actually answer truthfully when someone asks “How have you been?”. The gardeners are a tight community that I teeter somewhat awkwardly on the outskirts of, them also being my employers. And yet, their meetings over beers and potluck, their down-to-earth authenticity, and some unexpected expressions of appreciation for my presence feel decidedly more like I’m part of a community than a work place.
FLOATING DOWN THE RIVER
Instead of believing that we can be the grand conductor of the “train of our life”, forcibly hurling its metal body through the soft landscape of this world, and thinking we are being “derailed” and “need to get back on track” with Plan A for this year, this life – what if, instead, we saw our life as a winding river, with currents changing pace and relative direction, and many sights along the river banks? What if, instead of believing we are “stuck”, we got curious about the eddies and whirlpools and allowed them to take us deeper into the heart of our life?