Mindfulness and freedom…even just to clean

What did you plan on doing today? What did you actually do? This morning I awoke with a plan. I would rewrite the third chapter of my new novel and jog.

That was before I spotted some grime in the bathroom. I removed the offending spots but also realized it’s been a while since I thoroughly cleaned the house. I used to clean for a few hours every Saturday and Sunday, weekly. It was satisfying because, at the end of the day, I could see evidence of successful labors, unlike the experience at times of being in the trenches of intractable calculations which might laugh off the page at my ignorance or lack of mental acuity. Cleaning was simple; you vacuum the floor, and the cat hair gets transferred from the floor to the vacuum cleaner, leaving the room more habitable and my cat less likely to eat the hair and spew it up later. However, in the last while, the experience of cleaning has become less satisfying. Although my mind began to improve its immersion in calculations, and they were less likely to trifle with me like a cat and her mouse, it could not hold its focus during cleaning and would spin to distraction. And yes, somehow this would lead me to become cranky. So my home has not been very clean.

Today I cleaned. It shows how useless it sometimes is to make plans because, on occasion, we get sidetracked by a reevaluation of our priorities. I realized what a privilege it was for me to have a day to clean my home and felt grateful I have a home to clean. While I changed sheets and folded laundry this morning, I did rewrite the third chapter of my novel in my mind, imagining new characters and trying to inject more plot into my new novel to balance the interior dialogues of my protagonist. I wasn’t mindful, I admit, of the chores, but my mind was absorbed and content.

As I dusted and mopped, I felt gratitude for having the time and freedom to be able to clean and pondered which is more valuable. Although I feel grateful for the time and privilege to spend the day as I choose, I realize that I prioritize freedom even more. Although without time in our lives we would cease to exist, time endured in either mental or physical pain seems less valuable than our freedoms, specifically freedom from enslavement and freedom from discomfort. I think we take our freedoms for granted sometimes. I haven’t always had academic freedom, and when I was robbed of it, I realized how precious it is. When we are sick, we learn to appreciate the freedom we experience when we are free from disease. I can and have subsisted on very little money, but my spirit does not survive well without freedom. Are we conscious enough of this gift we possess and cherish it? I admire those who are robust and fight for freedoms when all they might possess is time.

The Magna Carta of 1215 is the basis for granting Canadians our freedoms. Freedom of thought and speech. Freedom of religion and conscience. Freedom of association. And freedom of peaceful assembly. Imagine this power given to the individual. This is what enables me to write to you today. These freedoms allow us to respect each other, even though we might differ in our religious opinions and which allow our minds to generate, without penalty, our thoughts.  The Magna Carta enables us to choose our friends and meet with them to philosophize or discuss physics or math, play chess, or just to enjoy coffee with them.

What else did I learn as I cleaned today? I learned that I don’t really attempt to perform any task half-way. Maybe it’s the theme of perfectionism which permeates a lot of my writing. Maybe it’s the reason why I have trouble having hobbies without ambitions for them. My cleaning is thorough, from the plastic containers that hold our winter boots to the inside and outside of all the kitchen cabinets to the ridges on the bathroom door. The world, our lives, the people who live in our worlds. We exist in shades of gray rife with ambivalence. Maybe I should get used to this and abandon the quest for clarity.

As I cleaned, I listened to music. Opera arias cleansed my spirit. So did Alicia Keys and songs from long ago, R.E.M., Into the West from The Return of the King. I don’t know what experts in mindfulness would think of this experience. I would hope they wouldn’t judge me for a soundtrack to my cleaning and a mind adrift on other topics. At times I was mindful of cleaning, as when I dusted and saw, really saw, the figures some of my best friends gave me from Rome, or the figure Andrew and I brought back from Italy ourselves. Then there were the broken souvenirs of my peripatetic life that I dusted. I wiped down my wedding pictures taken by one of my best friends, whom I had learned around this time ten years ago had passed away and today a sweet remembrance wafted through me, replacing the desperate sobbing that had engulfed me all those years ago. I searched and found the flowered-painted cup from France she had given me from her honey moon. And I realized there is a duality to our attachment to people, pets, objects, etc. We can live a life permitting a certain freedom from attachment but also one where love and forgiveness fill in the empty holes left by loss. We are the containers of our thoughts, and the material objects and fragrant memories that are gifts of friendship stimulate and direct our senses to a fullness of experience.

I finally nearly finished my task after cleaning approximately nine and a half hours including breaks roughly every forty-five minutes. I was not an empty automaton as I cleaned nor am I now. I’m not an angel. At times throughout the day, I did grow cranky but felt determined to persevere.

I’m awake. Life is short. I strive to be mindful of the gifts each day and the people in my days present. I try to embrace the freedoms I possess, struggle to achieve the ones I lack, and feel grateful for the freedom and time to have chosen what to do today. Even if it lacks cosmic significance. Even if it was just to clean.

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Review: Marriage: A Demolition in Two Acts

What does a kitchen renovation have to do with a trip to Mars? Coffee makers and cabinets? Debt? Unemployment? And, last but not least, marriage? What do all these elements have in common? They are all catalysts for brilliant comedy in playwright Rick Chafe’s ingenious play, Marriage: A Demolition in Two Acts, performing now at The Prairie Theatre Exchange.

The play is a generational mash-up between a Millennial couple, John, performed by Justin Otto, and Maggie, performed Erin McGrath, just starting to learn the ropes of what it means to be in a committed relationship and baby-boomer spouses Wayne, performed by Tom Anniko, and Julie, performed by Marina Stephenson Kerr.

The younger couple thinks they have it all figured out, between the technology of cell phones and romance conducted through texts, to trying to work things out through an imaginary couples therapy box in which they divulge the truth of their feelings. As is stated in the play, their relationship is not perfect, but they work to improve their connections and to satisfy each other’s needs. Maggie and John are young and cannot conceive of a marriage’s duration over time though. Forever, they say. Can love really last forever?

Enter Julie and Wayne. Julie is full of unrequited passion for romance and excitement which has diminished in the thirty years of her marriage to Wayne. Unemployed Wayne has succumbed to a life on the sidelines; his responsibilities largely relegated to laundry and managing the finances, both of which he is failing. Julie has compromised many dreams over the years, but her last hope of fulfilling some of her fantasies is for John and Maggie to design and build her her dream kitchen. The kitchen represents her hopes. It represents one sacrifice she refuses to concede.

As the play progresses, the kitchen becomes demolished, as it appears the precarious relationships do as well. The physical destruction of the kitchen might echo the demise of the the perilous state of the couples, but, instead, as the walls crumble, so do the walls separating the two pairs. The walls dividing the couples dissolve, and they begin to talk. And talk. The couples share their dreams and their beliefs in the insanity of some of their dreams and work through what really connects them and reality. Smoke and mirrors are replaced by truth.

Of course, this transformation does not occur without a few lively and hilarious battles, first occurring within the couples and later between them, all in the midst of a very real environment created with Winnipeg local flavor.

The play is about couples fighting, compromises, negotiations, dreams, connections, and generational gaps that reveal we all have something to learn from each other. It is about a love that might, in fact, last forever and how to make it there. The play is a comedy, but maybe we shouldn’t take our own lives so seriously either. There are different interpretations we can forge on our own lives, and maybe, just maybe, we are not so divorced from these characters. Maybe, if we look at it with the right lens, we can view the parts of our lives that pain us and see them in a comedic light in the same vein as we guffaw at the pain and detachment in Maggie, John, Julie, and Wayne’s predicaments.

At the crux of this laugh-out-loud play is a humorous juxtaposition between a young couple on the cusp of marriage and an older couple who has survived a thirty-year marriage. And a kitchen that gets demolished as the sacrifice for what is built in its stead.

Is life perfect? No, but I well recommend a night at the Prairie Theatre Exchange to lose yourself in a wonderfully performed and written comedy. And maybe when you come home, you realize that there is comedy everywhere, if you know where to look.

Review: Ethan Hawke’s Rules for a Knight

We are all travelers on this journey through life. On the way, we encounter others, in our personal experience as well as indirectly in the arts and sciences, who inspire us. According to Buddhist master, Thich Nhat Hanh, the old adage that the only constant is change resonates with the clarity of Philadelphia’s Liberty Bell from hundreds of years ago. Although we mistakenly cling to constancy and attachments, it is liberating to realize that our growth and evolution depend on perpetual reinvention.

At the finale of Ethan Hawke’s seemingly unassuming, though exquisitely bound and illustrated by Ryan Hawke, Rules for a Knight, the narrator’s grandfather contemplates his death and realizes that he has died on previous occasions as he passed through the different stages of life. The experience of reading these meditations that serve as a guide for a well-lived life impacted me profoundly, causing me, too, an experience of death and rebirth, perhaps, as an individual ever so slightly more enlightened.

The principles that guide the knight in his journey are comprehensive, from generosity to courage, from solitude to friendship, from love to death, from gratitude to forgiveness. The complete list of topics covered is nicely summarized at the conclusion of the book. While reading the book, I didn’t notice any omissions, except perhaps that of acceptance, detachment, and compassion, though these ideals weave throughout the book despite not possessing their own chapters. During the process of reading the book, I found myself referring back to prior sections to remind myself of the wisdom contained in its eloquent revelations.

I’ve tried to incorporate these principles into my mode of living previously and have exposed myself my entire life to the Western and Eastern philosophies on which the rubric for life in Rules for a Knight is based. However, somehow this book reached me, was able to penetrate my armor, in a way that previous readings had failed. I do not fully understand why this particular treatment of ancient philosophies was so transformative, though I suspect in part its success is through its simplicity and organization in addition to its clear and compelling expression. Each chapter explicates one of the principles, such as forgiveness or gratitude, followed by a short parable illustrating the way this theme can be incorporated into one’s experience. Perhaps one reason why this book could resonate so well with me is that its author grew up in the same era as I did, as a contemporary.

I had previously read the importance of the two principles, forgiveness and gratitude, but had difficulty embracing them. I have been fortunate to have lived my adult life in the companionship of love, and though I certainly did not take it for granted, I would often dwell on life’s obstacles and challenges, what my life lacked, and my own imperfections instead of forgiving myself for the life sentence of being human. I also did not fully live a life embodying gratitude for the beautiful and poignant aspects of humanity. I could not feel true and pure gratitude and comprehension for love and the redeeming qualities in life until I learned to recognize forgiveness for myself and those who have wronged me. The power of forgiveness and gratitude cannot be understated, and they can lead to you different dimensions of being.

The last section of the book is The Ballad of the Forty-Four Pointed Red Deer. I am not sure I interpreted this ballad correctly, but as a vegetarian who has striven to promote harmony with the planet since my early youth, I would like to think of it as a secular prayer for peace for our treatment of animals and the environment which gifts us our home.

I can barely recall a time when the movie, Dead Poets Society, which launched Ethan Hawke as a household name, did not influence me. Art influences us and comforts us, and Dead Poets Society certainly served as a companion for me during my lonely youth, particularly Hawke’s character Todd Anderson. It was, in part, quite ironically, the romanticism of this film which drew me to my alma mater, Wellesley College, a New England women’s college. However, Wellesley, though possessing a similar physical beauty to that of Welton’s, is a sacred environs to promote, rather than squash, individual, intellectual, and artistic freedoms. At Wellesley, I remember being influenced by other Ethan Hawke films during rare moments not studying physics, such as Reality Bites and Before Sunrise. In a sense, all these films embody a philosophical bent which urge the viewer to think beyond the paradigm she might have grown up with. The guidebook, Rules for a Knight, follows a similar vein. I wonder, how could the characters from these films could have benefited from the book and where would they be today (though, of course, we have a glimpse of this every nine years for the Before Sunrise series)?

Did Todd Anderson ever forgive his parents or Neil Perry’s father? Did he ever find someone to love? Did he ever learn to love himself? Did he ever experience enduring and caring friendships? Could he forgive himself for his own existence? Could he feel gratitude today for having encountered Neil and yet also accept and forgive his suicide? As he grows through middle-age, can he do so with grace, as outlined in Rules for a Knight? Can he accept his own births and deaths and also his final surcease of existence? Will he resolve his internal struggles?

I hope we all can.

What is one thing you can do to make it easier to be you?

Do you ever find it difficult just being you? All the parts of your life might be ideal, others might envy you, but you find the daily experience of just being you to be too much to tolerate? I never begrudge anyone else her life because you never know the challenges that someone else might secretly be battling. We have very few pinholes into others’ lives. Although we live in a voyeuristic age of social media, an era where every step we take and each breath we breathe is documented, it’s generally only the superficial which we choose to share and expose with others. We don’t really glimpse into others’ internal workings except in the most shallow of dissections. In a way, the manner in which we choose to communicate and share with those who are in our circles, through electronic and social media, transforms our lives into some kind of reality show.

So I don’t know what it feels like to be you. And you don’t know what it feels like to be me. But if I asked you one question, if you could think of one way you could be happier being you, what would it be? Do you know the answer?

I know my answer. It’s the buzzword of the century, but it’s the truth, to be more mindful. To take each hour one hour at a time. To fill each hour, one at a time, in a meaningful way.

You see, I’m an expert at wasting time. At letting my mind spin. I’ve tried the thought diffusion techniques, the ones where you picture your thoughts on leaves floating down a river. My river got clogged. I’ve tried labeling thoughts that were judgments. I think in about ten minutes I had gathered about twenty thoughts that could be depicted as judgmental (mostly negative ones concerning myself). I know, I know, in Eastern philosophical thought one goal is to minimize thoughts that put a spin on life, either as good or bad. These types of mindfulness exercises are ineffective for me, and I’ve tried them for years.

But why should every exercise work for every mind? My ballet classes certainly didn’t do it for Andrew, and as I lack the coordination to follow flying objects, his ultimate games would certainly be a failure for me to glean enjoyment and exercise. We are individuals, so I don’t see why the same mindfulness techniques would work equally for everyone as well.

What does work for me is to take life one hour at a time and to fill each hour in a way that feels meaningful. If I can lose myself in that hour in some activity, it is much easier to tolerate what my acting teacher last year called the horror of existence, while we were preparing scenes from Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.

If you think too hard about it, existence is a very messy affair. We eat and dispel squishy, wet objects. We experience physical and emotional pain and trauma. Life, like our pets, might play roughly at times. We all have our battles and demons to fight. I thought it would get easier with age (I started this line of thought in elementary school, surely junior high would be easier), but, with time, life, in some ways, just gets more complex and disarranged. We experience more loss on every front and are burdened by more baggage. For every generation, it seems, the world has crept toward more pessimistic outcomes. We might not be able to save the world from disaster.

But what can I do, right now, for the next hour to make my world or someone else’s world more bearable? To me, mindfulness is concentrating just on an hour in front of me and exploiting it without being ensnared in an obsessive vortex. Mindfulness to me is the answer to the question: What is one thing you can do to make it a little easier being you?