James stumbled out of bed and fed Mahatma. He waited as Mah limped out to empty his bladder on the grass. The old Keeshond lifted his leg ever so slightly these days. James was tired. He and the dog had been living together for 13 years. During that time, other than Mahatma, only two people had stayed in the bed. Lulu, for a few months in 2011. Daphne, for a few nights four years ago…and again last year.
They were both kind. There was nothing dramatic in James’ memory of the time he’d spent with Lulu, who’d been a singer and yoga instructor. She moved to Portland and they’d lost touch. Daphne still worked with James, albeit remotely.
On this particular gray Wednesday, in the midst of the global pandemic that refused to abate, James went to eat breakfast in the empty house up the street. It had a real estate sign in the front. He’d seen the neighbors move out a few days ago. Like so many other Americans during the chaos, James was working from home…or…barely working from home.
He was supposed to be calling names on a list, begging them to re-subscribe to an intellectual publication that was growing irrelevant in the Toxic Information Age. It was a mess. Nobody wanted to pick up the phone, much less re-subscribe. Sometimes James left voicemails in strange accents he concocted on the spot. James was basically a human mosquito, whose livelihood was based on flying close enough to buzz into people’s ears until they relented and signed up for $9 per month. When nobody even picked up the phone, what was James supposed to do? The job would be outsourced to India in a few months. Either that or the publication would simply cease to exist, a relic of a time when people read essays and tried to understand the world. People who probably spent a couple hundred per month at the online mecca of cheap stuff made in China.
James had explored every corner of his own small suburban home, which was in danger of foreclosure — he was two months late — but he’d never set foot in the odd house. Searching online, he noticed that the house had a back deck.
The next morning, he took his toasted everything bagel and his leftover coffee and trudged up the street to eat breakfast there. It was technically trespassing but who was going to make a 7:30 am appointment with the real estate agent?
Now…why should we care about this man, this ordinary James? We could be distracting ourselves with social media or baking cookies. We could go back to our daily distractions. Why should James be allowed to take up our precious (baffling and convoluted) time?
Because James had that endearing quality that writers, film directors and television show runners are endlessly in search of: He was relatable. He was familiar, but not too common. I’m not supposed to tell you that. I’m supposed to show you…gradually, with clever manipulation. But why play mind games? I trust you. You like stories.
James entered the backyard through the side gate. He heard what he thought were finches chirping. The crows were picking over small insects and worms. The train whistled by down the hill. James carried his bagel on a small plate. It nearly slid off into the bushes, but he recovered it, spilling his coffee slightly.
He sat down at the gray patio table. The chair was damp with morning dew. So now his gray athletic pants were also damp. He looked out at the trees beyond the fence of this house. The view was only slightly different than his own. The suburb had modest yards, but a variety of trees and flowers, which kept the birds and squirrels around. He crunched on the bagel, accidentally biting his cheek, and let out a yelp. He pretended this patio was his. The house was modernized and bigger, something that might be useful if he ever had a child…or guests.
He imagined his life was entirely different. Instead of 38, he was 68. Instead of working two mind-numbing jobs, he was newly retired. Instead of being single and aching with loneliness, he was married, with a hilarious wife and two grown children, who lived nearby and each had two mischievous little kids of their own.
When the reverie began to fade, he found himself mildly irritated again. He finished his bagel, slurped the rest of his coffee, and left the mug and plate with crumbs on the table. Then he started back home to shower and start another interminable work day. When he got to the gate, a neighbor was walking her dog down the street. Startled to see anyone on the property, she let out a gasp.
James nodded to her and mumbled about knowing the real estate agent and checking on things in the back garden for her, before shuffling down the street.
James had never taken anti-depressants. There had been a time when he medicated with marijuana. Another time when he medicated with music. Times when he medicated with both. Journaling had helped some. Alcohol — another way out of the malaise — had briefly been a problem, though it usually led to a deeper malaise the next morning.
He’d started getting into sound therapy a few years ago. Tibetan singing bowls. Tongue drums. Playing and centering himself. It helped. The trouble was…he rarely kept the routines for longer than a month.
Recently, he found a group that offered a four-week mindfulness class. With tired eyes, he’d originally read “Mindfulness Medication,” rather than Meditation. It was both, wasn’t it?
Mindfulness. James started taking a mindfulness class online, the only place one could do anything during this year. He thought it might be full of feel-good people, or people who were determined to feel a little bit better. Kind of the opposite of everywhere he turned online. It had begun to seem like there was a direct correlation between time spent online and existential emptiness.
James was tired of the id that technology targeted. The lizard brain. Instinct. Pleasure. No thought. Everything immediate. Comedians know the power of laughter, and after a little experience, they all know what a cheap laugh is and how to get it. The world was full of cheap laughs now. Nothing earned. The recent president had been the cheapest and most dangerous laugh in American history.
James was also tired of his ego, as well as ego in general. Id, ego, superego. As a college student, he’d had success with a single short story. Ego boost. At the time he was studying psychology. If you believed Freud, you were supposed to imagine your ego as a way of navigating reality. Taking the urges of the id and channeling them, planning and devising ways of getting what you want. The idea being that if you get what you want you will be happy. What a lie. Freud was a fraud. As James saw all around him, the more often people got what they wanted, the more they needed to get. There was no end to the chase.
What a waste of energy, chasing attention from strangers. What a waste of your mind, to allow it to become trapped in negativity and spirals. At the same time, James was suspicious of people who smiled too much. James had heard it took at least ten facial muscles to form a smile. So much work! Nothing revolted him more than a fake smile. You could see the muscles tensing and holding. All the teeth. The eyes looking wild and crazy because of how much effort the smile demanded. If you looked up “demented” in the online dictionary, you’d see a person with big teeth and wild eyes, smiling demonically.
The mindfulness course had a “live session,” in which 133 participants from all over the world — a surprising number of which were from Canada — joined the Zoom call while the three lead speakers discussed the foundations of mindfulness. The audio wasn’t great, with static and faulty connections often overwhelming James’ senses. Irony. James was listening to his body, slowing his breathing…and then robot crackle…the calm speaker’s voice was surrounded by fuzz. Finding a clear mind was hard enough without auditory static. But James let the frustration go. This was the point of the whole thing…stop getting tripped up by life’s imperfections. They are everywhere. Allow things to be.
In the breakout room, four other faces appeared, with names at the bottom.
“Teacher Christie” has practiced transcendental meditation for years, twice a day. She recently moved from San Diego to Idaho to be with her daughter and grandchild. She sat squinting, with a colorful room full of shelves behind her.
“Michelle” was reclining in bed. She taught for 30 years, before retiring. She’d recently been asked to temporarily come back and teach grade four. It had been -28 degrees Fahrenheit in Saskatchewan for two weeks. James felt a shiver run through his spine. She had been driving the few minutes to work at the school, but recently the weather had warmed up…to 5 degrees Fahrenheit. Michelle had taken to walking. It took 15 minutes. She appreciated using the time to settle her mind.
“Shannon,” began talking. She was younger, in Minnesota. She appreciated Michelle’s experience of how hard the winter was. A black cat appeared in her lap. She dutifully stroked it while she spoke.
“Lisa” was a speech and language pathologist, near Vancouver. She liked running in the woods, with her music in her ears. But recently, she’d taken out the ear buds and started listening to the forest as she run. She felt more connected on those runs. Her work often made her stressed out. She looked like someone who had preferred loud rock shows in her 20s and was uneasily settling into her early 40s.
It was James’ turn. He wasn’t sure where to begin. He talked about feeling a general malaise for a long time and needed connection. He mentioned reading a book about Buddhism and psychology and how he wanted to quiet his mind. He was interested in teaching, but his only experience had been as a substitute years ago.
The breakout room session ended and there were the square boxes on the screen again. There was a closing talk and the reality of the afternoon immediately revealed itself. Did James feel more calm? More centered? Maybe. He walked into the backyard and noticed the green buds on the trees. Spring was coming soon. He appreciated the gray sky. 51 degrees and cloudy. Also 75 degrees warmer than Saskatchewan in mid-February.
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