Watching the minnows

Mindfulness is one of the cool things now, and one of the hardest things. Apparently it means focusing on the present moment while acknowledging one’s feelings as impermanent. Or something.

Not that I would know much about it. I am generally focused on what I have to do next while trying to ignore, rather than acknowledge, a vague feeling of suffocation caused by the weight of daily drudgery.

This is what Thoreau tried to warn us about, but we rolled our eyes, because maybe it wasn’t actually that hard for an able-bodied Ivy League grad to avoid responsibility and be one with nature just long enough to get a book deal.

For that matter, I bet it wasn’t even that hard to get a book deal in the mid-1800s when the majority of people were too busy collecting eggs and firewood to become literate enough to attend university.

But the point remains.

I have just paid the bills that would have been late had I not paid them. Check. I just mailed the application to get into a program that will make me more qualified. Check. I just nagged my kid for 20 minutes until she completed her six nightly math exercises, 20 minutes of reading, and daily reading log. Check.

I realize that none of these things is essential to survival in the most rudimentary sense, but they are not exactly optional, either.

So where does mindfulness come into all of that?

Why would you want to be present and aware as you sweep cat hair and litter off the stairs? How about unloading the dishwasher? Is there someone who could tell me how to turn that into a moment of inner peace and personal growth? I know – maybe I could be mindful on the treadmill. Studies show that if I run three times a week on the treadmill, I will sleep better and be less likely to feel depressed.

If I run for an hour a day, I can continue to eat three “sensible” meals a day without packing on those terrible midlife pounds.

But I can’t outrun time. My feet are rapidly deteriorating. Where a doctor once told me to run every day, another doctor has informed me that custom orthotics will help me delay foot surgery, but not forever. My feet won’t make it the rest of my life unless I don’t make it much longer. I’m not yet 40, but there are apparently several parts of my body that can’t sustain much more impact.

But you can’t just quit, so I do the elliptical machine. I turn on the music to distract myself while I log the requisite 20 minutes of cardio.

Is this living deeply? Is this sucking the marrow out of life? Oh, it feels like it.

I had a conference yesterday with my daughter’s teacher. My daughter reads well, but tends to daydream and veer off-task. She also scored only 85 percent on her reading assessment because, while she can understand the main idea of a story, she apparently wasn’t able to carefully discern the main idea of paragraph three on a digital multiple choice test.

As teachers, this lack of attention to detail is what we might refer to as an “area of concern.”

I distinctly remember my own teachers saying that I daydreamed a lot, yet this was not so much a problem in my day because when I learned to read, it was enough to understand the main idea or theme of a story without having to dissect it paragraph for paragraph to appease a state-approved digital multiple choice test.

What does all this have to do with mindfulness?

Well, when I was a kid, one thing I thought was fun was to pick out a book that I wanted to read and then lay around reading it for as long as I wanted. I didn’t have to log my minutes or be accountable in any way. My sister and I read the same books and talked about them without ever describing the setting using five new vocabulary words that we had learned from the story.

In this way, we were young. We lived in the moment and did things, such as reading, just for the experience.

I doubt I will ever live like that again, and if I do, it won’t be the same. That feeling of anticipation in the spring that was a tingling thrill on a Friday night when I was 14 might be a soothing exhalation if I ever get around to being mindful of it.

But can you really be mindful when you’re trying? When you have written 20 minutes of meditation into your schedule somewhere between scrubbing the shower and picking up your new mouth guard from the dentist?

I will tell my daughter she must be more careful about main ideas in paragraphs three and six. I will tell my son he must know the terms for the stages of clay work in order to get a B in art class, regardless of how much he enjoys sculpture or what the finished product looks like.

I will tell them that they can not continue to breed and collect animals both domestic and wild for the sheer pleasure of watching life longing for itself.

A family of minnows has lived in a bowl on my daughter’s nightstand for months now. A mother minnow swims in circles with a handful of young minnows, so tiny. Watching them swim in circles, for one brief moment, I see the miracle.

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