Free Speech & Four-year-olds


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Pensive! by Steve Garvie Yellow Baboon

Pensive! by Steve Garvie

My son’s preschool teacher called me recently to tell me he had called a friend ‘stupid.’ (FYI: all classmates in preschool are referred to as “friends” to protect their anonymity in cases of biting, hitting, name calling, and the like.) Ulysse’s teacher was concerned because this was not his first offense. He did it once before winter break too! I made all of the requisite sounds of concerned disapproval as I listened and semi-proudly thought, “only one stupid in three months – not too bad!” When she confronted him about his crime and told him we don’t call people stupid, Ulysse pithily replied, “well, Donald Trump says that!”


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Chestnuts & Mindfulness Revisited


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If only I could eat these all over again…

So, I ate a million chestnuts. And I have a few more deep thoughts to share about chestnuts and mindfulness. Especially after we feasted on them at my in-laws’ house for two days in a row and didn’t even make a dent in the supply.

My last installment detailed the treacherous task of collecting chestnuts once they have fallen to the ground in a frightening, flesh-piercing mass. In harvesting these intimidating little tyrant nuts, one must exercise extreme caution and laser beam focus, particularly when one is too lazy to walk back across the yard and grab a pair of gloves to protect one’s digits from certain destruction. That’s me.

But threats of violence are not all chestnuts have to offer, as I happily rediscovered when it came time to eat them. On day 21, I was keeping up in my determination to faithfully participate in the 31-day mindfulness challenge every single day, and here was yet another opportunity to reflect upon what I had learned so far.

Have you ever eaten roasted chestnuts? Have you? They are nothing like peanuts or even walnuts. I’m talking about real chestnuts. If you answered “no,” you need to get yourself some roasted chestnuts STAT.

My first experience was at Christmas in the French city of Nantes in 2001 with Andrea. We were both “assistantes d’anglais” in France that year and spent the holidays together adventuring around as best we could on our modest salaries. We kept seeing these curious mobile stove carts made to look like steam engines with signs for “marrons grillés” and people coming away from them with steaming paper cones brimming over with something quite intriguing.

We approached, we enquired, we invested a few Francs in the experiment (this was just before the switch to the Euro.) Oh. my. god. Incredible. Splitting one small cone was not going to do it for us. When one happens upon something like this, it is a well known fact that one must eat as much of it as possible on the spot – who knows if another opportunity will ever arise? We greedily procured another, and then possibly another? It was a long time ago. Who can remember such details?

nuts in skillet

Chestnuts literally roasting on an open fire…contained in a gas grill.

What I do remember is the phenomenal, warm, ever so slightly sweet, starchy quality of the chestnut meat, which, incidentally, resembles a small, partially charred brain. But you have to work hard to get to that delicious charred brain! The roasting process requires puncturing the tough skin before putting the chestnuts over the fire in a special pan, and the skin usually become brittle and cracked as it roasts. But the mouthwatering prize must still be extracted from this outer layer and one other, more unpredictable layer that may fall away with little fuss, or more likely, will cling to the meat like old paint on a piece of intricate furniture, flaking off frustratingly small bit by bit.

tiny brain

Behold! the delicious fruits of my labor! In the background, behold the chestnut offal. 

Chestnut eating is a delicate art. Or at least, that is how I imagine it ought to be. I, however, ate them like a savage beast at first, crushing them and ripping at the skins with my bare hands and fingernails. My voracious objective to get as many of them in my mouth as quickly as possible ran in direct opposition to the amount of time required to strip the elusive nuts of their multiple protective sheaths. My fingers began to show wear and feel raw. Why not use the knife lying untouched beside my plate to my advantage? Indeed. A tool was exactly what I needed. Once I was domesticated in this way, the process became less painful and a bit more efficient, and far more civilized. I began to ponder how this, too, fit nicely into the scheme of the mindfulness talks I’d been enjoying for the past three weeks.

Just as I had noticed that collecting chestnuts, “dangernuts” as I call them, demands undivided attention, so does consuming them. It requires appropriate tools, proper technique, much patience, equal determination, as well as concentrated purposeful focus on this one present moment activity. Of course I was at the dinner table with several family members, whom I all but ignored, aside from occasional attempts to convince my son to try them (but not too hard, because that would have meant sharing,) or to chase him back to his seat. For the most part, however, I was fully immersed in this endeavor.

Because of the amount of labor involved, I had no choice but to eat slowly. I savored each bite and appreciated it’s perfect flavor as I diligently worked toward the next mouthful. I could tell when I was getting full, but continued to stuff my face in full consciousness of this fact. I assume that acting reasonably when confronted with such knowledge is a higher lever of awareness and self-control that I simply have not yet attained. On the other hand, perhaps I did act reasonably, since I am pretty sure I won’t have access to this kind of treat again for quite a while! I thought about the seasons and I how lucky it was that we were visiting at this time of year. Sometimes we catch apricot season or cherry season, which is amazing as well. This was our first chestnut season.

My husband, my son and I have returned stateside now. I’m sorry to report that the jet lag and sheer travel exhaustion totally overwhelmed my determination to stick with the daily talks of the Mindfulness Summit. It’s not over yet, but I lost steam and have been too tired to try to catch up or even jump back in (yet.) Previously, I would have been upset with myself and felt guilty that I did not follow through. What I learned from the two-thirds of the Summit I did listen to, and thoroughly enjoyed, is that I can simply acknowledge that I am having negative thoughts and notice them before letting them float off on their own and moving on. Yes, it is easier said than done, but I am getting better at it! Just because I have a thought does not make it true and I don’t have to judge myself for thoughts I have in spite of myself. There.

Finally, I may not have listened to every minute of every talk, as I had planned, but what I did listen to has most definitely piqued my interest and I have already incorporated several simple techniques into my daily life. The Mindfulness Summit also made me want to keep reading, watching, listening, practicing, and learning about what mindfulness can do for me – and more importantly what it can help me do for the people and the world around me. I don’t have to become a perfect person to be a better and more purposeful person. I can be me – more authentically me – and that’s a good first step.

What have you learned from mindfulness?

On chestnuts & mindfulness


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I loved everything about this leaf, and then my son destroyed it.

The stars have made it clear they will not rest until I get my mind in order. As the universe churns out its mysterious swirling progress, my personal trajectory keeps coming up mindfulness. The promises and temptations of greater happiness, unshakable self-confidence, less stress, and less anxiety have reached a tipping point in my life. Nonetheless, I could easily continue my two steps forward, one and a half steps back approach to the notion of present moment awareness… With a small child at home, it is easy to be busy or tired, but even I don’t buy those excuses anymore. After all, I used to be “too busy” and tired to floss my teeth, but now that flossing has become so thoroughly entrenched in my repertoire of positive daily habits, I almost never skip a day. And I never miss a chance to boast about how regularly I floss. Check.

Lately, it seems I’ve come full circle. After multiple false or half-hearted starts with mindfulness/meditation, several different paths have all recently led me back to the uncomfortable realization that it’s time to do mindfulness in a more serious, (but happily, not too serious!) regular, and sustainable way.

And this time I’ve got reinforcements!

I was recently seeing a therapist who recommended meditation for the purposes of letting go of the “stories” from the past, be it 20 years ago or 20 minutes ago, and learning to be present in the moment called now – as opposed to stewing, ruminating, etc. For several weeks, I raised multiple objections and questions about the mechanics of mindfulness and meditation and I still don’t think I totally get it, but repetition and practice is part and parcel of mindfulness. That’s why it’s called PRACTICE! So, I have every reason to believe it will get through to me eventually. In the mean time, I’ll just do what all intrepid adventurers do and fake it till I make it.

I did a little reading on my own, but then, felicitously, my dear, darling college friend Andrea posted on Facebook about a mindfulness challenge she planned to take up in October – only a couple of days away at the time. I can never resist any challenges I see on Facebook, particularly from Andrea. She does all the best challenges.

Turns out, the whole month of October is one big 31-day mindfulness challenge. As if the universe contrived to bring this all about and put it down right in front of me, (and everyone else on the planet with an internet connection,) Mrs. Mindfulness, also known as Melli O’Brien, a delightfully charming Australian mindfulness extraordinaire, has put together The Mindfulness Summit and is presenting daily interviews and lectures for the entire month. And it’s free! No risk.

I am traveling several time zones away from home at the moment. When I signed up for this, I thought to myself, “Oh, fantastic! Here I go again…I did so well with the Take 10 challenge – 10 minutes of meditation for 10 days, (which I wrote about here, here, and here,) let’s up the ante to 31 days of things I can feel bad about not accomplishing!” But, in a strange twist, admittedly somewhat characteristic of me, when the going gets tough and unpredictable, I make it my sole, obsessive mission in life to make sure this one thing happens, no matter what.

It’s day 11 of the challenge as I write this and I am up to date on all the talks so far (but now on day 13, it’s a slightly different story). I have had to double up a couple of times when I missed one here and there, but I am not behind now and I am really enjoying the entire experience. It didn’t occur to me before to wonder how they were going to fill 31 days talking about mindfulness, but now that I have seen just 11 days worth of material, I can’t help but marvel at all of the domains into which mindfulness can reach. I’ve heard about mindful eating, mindfulness and mental health, neuroscience, happiness, daily life practices, and more. I can’t wait to see what will come next.

The minor irony, for now, is that I am spending so much time listening to talks about mindfulness that I’ve not had time to sit down and do it, except when the daily presentations include a guided exercise. On the other hand, although the talk about mindful eating was not my favorite, I did take my time eating lunch today and concentrated on the taste of most bites I took. I chewed slowly and considered the fact that I was eating a lovely meal. Present moment awareness. Not bad.

I spent some time this morning considering a pretty fall leaf I found on a walk. It was deep burgundy with flashes of yellow and red – a stunning autumn flame (see photo above.) Soon after, my two-and-a-half-year-old took great pleasure in repeatedly scrunching it up until twas but a bent and twisted remnant of its former splendor and I didn’t even get all mad or wistful about the loss of my beautiful leaf. I just mindfully said to myself, “Dammit, what a little shit!” and went on with my life. Acknowledge, accept, and move on… I think it’s working!

This evening, I went for a brisk walk as I listened to the interview with Shamash Alidina about practical ways to be mindful. It was so good! As I walked through the field riddled with holes perfect for spraining an ankle, (thanks to the rain and the cows who walked there recently,) I had to be quite mindful of my steps. Then I came upon a chestnut tree with huge piles of fallen chestnuts booby-trapping the ground around it.

If you’ve never seen chestnuts ready to be harvested, let me tell you, they are terrifying. Incomprehensibly long, spiky thorns protrude from every possible angle. What are they protecting themselves against? Some type of monstrous creature with absolutely no sense of feeling in any part of its body? Animals with mouths and digestive tracts made of armor? These mini war balls burst open when they are ripe and fall to the ground in a large mound of menacing stabbiness defending a tasty snack on the inside. Then they just lie there seductively with their shiny brown skin gleaming through their fearsome outer shells, daring innocents to try scooping them up and feasting on them. “So, you’d like to collect some chestnuts because they are so delicious?” they seem to say. “Not if our apocalypse battle gear has anything to say about it you won’t!”

I persevered. In spite of the mortal danger to every finger of my body, I found it quite calming to collect these threatening little would be snacks. A well placed nudge with a shoe allowed me to free them from their prickly carapace and carefully pick them up, mostly unscathed. One simply cannot concentrate effectively on self-hatred, self-doubt, or any other self-destructive thought patterns when one is so intently focused on protecting one’s fingers from being obliterated by such vicious, inside-out pincushions. 

Maybe I am starting to get it! Part of what I appreciate so much about this Mindfulness Summit, so far, is that experts from all over the world agree that each person must find their own way to mindfulness. They are not dogmatic and do not insist that you must spend X amount of time in X position. Not unlike the chestnuts, though with much less weaponry about them, they are all bursting with encouragement and nourishing ideas about how to live mindfully.

What’s your trick for mindful living?

Ten Days of Meditation: The Results Are In


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Llama in Meditation

“Llama in meditation” by Alan Levine, Creative Commons License


The 10-day experimental meditation journey has come to an end. It took me not 10, but 15 or 16 days to squeeze the 10 sessions into my life. I tracked my progress on this blog here and here, and some of my friends were alarmed by my stressy, perfectionist approach to the whole enterprise of mindfulness and meditation, which in turn, alarmed me. Was I playing up my rigidity for comedic effect or am I worse off than I thought? Maybe I need stronger medicine, like a Mediterranean vacation or an on-call therapist.

An important realization: I am not a laid back person. It’s time I faced that fact. But then again, I am not on the verge of apoplexy most of the time either. I like to think of myself as laid back, at least about certain things. For instance, I experience very little anxiety about being a bad parent (so far.) But in general, I mentally and emotionally overinvest in most everything else.

A few examples: Kids (who are not my own) playing in the sun stress me out because I worry that they might not be wearing sun screen and I don’t want their perfect baby skin to be marred. I worry about perfect strangers’ teeth when I see them drinking sugary sodas. My blood pressure goes up just listening to friends’ tales of frustration and adversity caused by the totally preventable stupidity of others. I yell at the TV screen, often giving advice to fictional characters, and cry over videos of gorillas being reunited with their human friends. As a graduate student, my advisor occasionally had to remind me that the people in the novels I was writing about were not real people.

To me, all of this is not only real, but also real important. And that’s just my worries about people I don’t even know or who don’t really exist.

Acceptance: So I can’t separate reality from fiction. So I sweat some of the small stuff. The minuscule, microscopic stuff. That’s how I got to where I am now – trying to find ways to avoid letting imaginary minutia get to me. Given the poor showing I made on my attempt at daily meditation, I do not think I will invest in a meditation subscription at this juncture. Before I do something like that, I should be sure that I can get into a daily effort frame of mind and that just hasn’t happened yet. For now, I’ve at least started a few conversations, learned about a couple of other techniques for taking it down a notch, heard about the experiences of others, and started thinking about what I need to do.

Plan B: I will keep trying to become a calmer version of me. Will I try a mindfulness and meditation group? Maybe I will! Will I read self-help books? Or perhaps I’ll just peruse them at the library and make a mental note of helpful hints. Who has time to read an entire self-help book anyway? I will continue to build my community and support group of people who are working to find their inner calm and just knowing they are out there trying just like me already makes it seem less daunting. I could pay to play and join a community of strangers, but when I started to look around and talk to people about these private struggles, I found that just about everyone is looking for inner peace.

I’ll find my own way with a little help from my friends. On that note, I’m still taking suggestions!

Worst. Meditator. Ever.


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Mindfulness is stressing me out. I think I am actually getting worse at it each day.

I’m on a 10-day journey to the land of mindfulness. Read about how I got started here. This particular (attempted) journey is made possible by Headspace, an app you can get on your phone or other smart device to help you learn to be a calmer, more peaceful, more mindful, generally better version of you. They invite you to try their services for 10 days of 10-minute sessions called “Take 10” in the hope that you will become addicted to the soothing encouragement and reassuring tones of Andy, the founder’s voice, and then subscribe indefinitely for a monthly fee. The fee isn’t totally nutballs or anything, but how many monthly fees can a budget really handle? (Netflix, Health plans for 2 feline ingrates, Audible, the Y, multiple monthly donations, regular bills, preschool tuition, healthcare for the people in the household, etc.)

But more importantly, how’s that journey going, anyway?

So glad you asked.

Day 1: Cool. I can do this. I will become an amazing super woman, like I always wanted. Never again will I let things that are beyond my control keep me wide awake and sorting toys to pass the time in the middle of the night. I’ll even invite a couple of people to join me just for fun. Or spite. That’s probably not allowed.

Day 2: Makin’ time for me. I’m gettin’ mindful. Nothing of note to report.

Day 3: I’m on a roll! I’ll invite more people. Best thing ever!

Day 4: I powered through the last 5 minutes as Ulysse woke up from his nap, but let’s face it: adding worry about what a small child is doing in his room alone to the already challenging task of focusing on breath or the body or the blue sky or whatever is just too much. I don’t think Andy wants me to ignore my child. Is there an app for family meditation, or will I have to plunk him down in front of an episode of Sesame Street? We try to save TV for emergencies. Does this qualify? I just want to get some perspective, some “headspace” without getting arrested for child neglect, ya know?

Day 5: I must have blocked this day out. Probably done before bed. Not optimal. The novelty must be wearing off.

Day 6: Pretty much power napped through this one. No memories. It has come to my attention that I should be sitting upright and not leaning back in a chair, much less lying flat on my back in bed, like I did last night, or reclining in a comfy leather chair, like I did today. Perhaps these recumbent positions have a little something to do with my invariably falling asleep during meditation. I think I’m on a downward spiral.

Day 7: Dammit. It’s 10pm. I meant to get this done during nap time. I totally missed the bus for my journey today. Not only will I now try to type, with a straight face, that I just could not find 10 minutes in my day for meditation, I must also confess that I have not been following directions. Andy says to breath in through the nose and out through the mouth. I have an aversion to breathing out through my mouth. Sorry, Andy. Is this me hitting rock bottom? Went to bed feeling guilty and lazy.

Day 7: Jumping back on the bus! Andy doesn’t seem to be mad or even disappointed in me. He isn’t one to hold a grudge, unlike me. He even sent me a lovely email with a generous promotional offer if I sign up for a year-long subscription. Damn you, Andy! With your breezy, sweet talking, enlightened, British meditation speak, your cuddly little animation characters, and your crack team of internet marketers! Are you putting subliminal messages in the Take 10 sessions or are you just that good?!? Make that two emails today. Just got another one.

That’s as far as I have gotten.

Thus far in my mindfulness apprenticeship, I am most keenly aware that I am a middling meditator at best.

Favorite excuses for my meditation mediocrity:

  • I’m sooooo tired! Maybe I would stay awake better sitting up, and maybe I would sleep better afterward, but it feels like a Herculean effort at 10:30pm. Andy says I would do better first thing in the morning, but he doesn’t say anything about what to do if your toddler wakes up and starts chanting “Maman coming! Maman coming!” and you can’t be sure he won’t pee in the bed if you don’t go right away or if he just really misses you. How can one be mindful of anything else in circumstances such as these?
  • I don’t have time. See the first Day 7.
  • Oops! I totally forgot!
  • Everyday is kind of a lot…
  • Didn’t I already do that today. Oh, yeah, that was yesterday.
  • I don’t wanna breath out through my mouth!

Will I make it through 10 days? I’ve already missed out on a snazzy 10-day streak meditation badge in the app. Will I become addicted to Andy? Or will I be sucked in by the combination of his tantalizing offer and the desire to be addicted to mindfulness? Will I then pay for this gym membership of the mind for years on end, never actually using it, but too ashamed to admit it and quit? Only one way to find out!

Stay tuned. Should I subscribe? Or should I find another path to personal enlightenment? I’m open to suggestions, and apparently, subliminal messages.