The idea for this open letter came to me a week ago Tuesday. But I’ll start the story a couple of days sooner: a week ago Sunday. About 10:30 at night that Sunday I received a text message. There was no one I was expecting to hear from, and it was the time most people get ready for bed to start their work week on Monday, so I immediately thought “bad news from someone” or “it’s my mother” or “some kind of complete surprise.” It was the third.
A fella I had dated about eight months ago—and hadn’t communicated with since—was starting a meditation group at his apartment two days later on Tuesday. He writes that he had belonged to a similar group “back on the farm,” it “fed his soul” and he “missed it.” Format of the group was fifteen minutes of silent meditation, after which everyone in the group would get a chance to talk about whatever was on his mind.
I always enjoy hearing about your U-Lab group, and I had been thinking for a while it would be nice to have a similar group for myself in New York. While J’s meditation & free discussion group might turn out to be something quite different from your U-Lab group, and could very well last only a single meeting, I thought I should give it a chance. I wrote back to J: “Sure, I’ll be there.”
J lives about 30 minutes away from me in Brooklyn—a couple of subway stops and then a fifteen-minute walk. During the last part of the journey while I was walking I imagined just who might be the other people in this group. The message he had sent me on Sunday wasn’t addressed specifically to me. He might have sent it to a hundred people to see who would show up. Or he might have selected a handful of individuals he thought would enjoy a spiritual-minded meeting. However the group turns out I like the idea of walking into a surprise. I walk into J’s apartment-slash-studio (he’s an artist). There are six people at the table, besides J. Short introductions around the table. No mention of how J has come to known any of these people.
The fifteen minutes of meditation, as has generally been my experience, was extremely difficult for the first fourteen minutes—hard to sit still, why is the time passing so slow? how long does a minute last anyway? I have no problem sitting there doing nothing on the subway—then suddenly I reach this peaceful, cloudy state, and thirty seconds later J abruptly says,
J asked for a volunteer to be the first person to speak what was on his mind. Usually I jump right in and am the first person to speak at events like workshops and conferences, but since I was now meditative and wanted to try something different, I kept quiet. So did everybody, for about fifteen seconds.
“All right then, I’ll go,” J says. And he shares a significant problem that has been on his mind—so significant, the problem seems to me, that it might be the reason he decided out of the blue to convene a meditation & free discussion group. Alas, it’s a problem I’ve also had myself—and no longer have—and I feel this sense of, “Wow, I’m so glad I don’t have to deal with that anymore.” I’m not sure if this is a good feeling, to feel better about myself because I’ve just heard someone is worse. On the other hand, I was in the same situation J currently feels stuck in—and I made it through. That might be something good for J to know.
J finishes speaking and turns to the person to his left. He has us “go around the table” as one does in workshops. All that time on waiting for a volunteer to start; now if you’re seated on the volunteer’s left you’re doomed. I’m seated at the foot of the long rectangular table opposite J, where I can see everyone in the group (I chose this place on purpose, and take secret pride in my ability to find good vantage points in rooms). My turn comes and I talk about my new weight training regime and associated high-calorie diet and how hard it is to eat so much food, intermixed with how I recently bought a digital piano and then two days afterward my roommate asked me to move out of the apartment—not because of my playing, but because he simply didn’t want me in the house anymore. Brief mention also of my recently reinvigorated dating life (my roommate asking me to move out has nothing to do with this either), as well as “the project” I’m writing (last time you and I spoke we wordified it as a “chronological wall of stones”) and how that’s coming along well. As I say these things and share all my problems, I realize that summing my problems together I have a full life—and that’s not necessarily a bad thing—”Trifles make the sum of life,” Dickens wrote—in fact it’s a very a good thing—considering eight months ago when I was in therapy (about the same time I was dating J) the main issue I brought up each week in therapy was “My life is so dull. It’s boring being a writer. I need a hobby. And I don’t mean dating.”
It’s the turn to speak of the person to my left. Also a writer, but older and more experienced. First thing he says: “After hearing the problems of everyone else at the table,” and he nods at various people and says “your problem with your love life,” “your problems with school,” and looking at me, “your problems with finding a place to live, I’m so glad to be at this stage in my life and to have put these kinds of problems behind me.”
“Ouch,” I think—and wonder just what kind of apartment he lives in.
I walk out together with one of my fellow group members, A. I sense this might be the beginning of a new friendship and am pleased. Meanwhile my mind roams over an idea. Here’s a note I wrote to myself immediate after the meditation meeting:
Write open letter about how the writing of my project, and all the ingenuity it takes to make it happen, is as important as what I write itself. That Pamela, myself and perhaps others have started a movement on how to work differently (“the landscape of change”). I want to show it’s possible.
And here’s another note I wrote to myself a few days later:
Start open letter to Pamela by saying how I always enjoy the stories of her U-lab group and find myself wishing I had such a group myself. Then recount my experience of last Tuesday, at J’s, as a somewhat similar group, albeit at first meeting. About hearing other people’s anxieties and putting my own housing struggles into perspective. Then making the connection back to all the things I stomached during the time I was at the Hub trying to make it as an entrepreneur/self-employed person. Realizing I’m doing the same thing now with writing “the project”—and that the process of figuring out how to write it, and carrying it through, is at least as important as what I’m actually writing—because it represents an experiment Pamela and I have been carrying on together since we met, about figuring out how to work in the Landscape of Change. And so long as I persevere in writing The Project, it really doesn’t matter where I live. Because the work of writing The Project is the work that Pamela and I have been engaged in together, to navigate our way across the Landscape of Change. It’s exciting now, because we—she and I—are on the verge of demonstrating it can be done. No wait: not on the verge. We ARE demonstrating it.
So that’s my letter. To give it a nice close I’ll talk about the second meeting of our meditation & free discussion group. As I mentioned above, I’ve been on a high-calorie diet lately, and very often feel quite full. I arrived at the second meeting imagining that when the time came to meditate my brain would be criss-crossed with thoughts about my recently reinvigorated dating life, and in particular one fella I had seen the previous week. Instead, all I could think was: Did I really need to eat that tuna fish sandwich before coming to J’s house? I didn’t know A (my nascent new friend) would be bringing that squash dish. I only ate two pieces of squash. My stomach hurts. Should I get up and go to the bathroom? Would that still count as meditation if I’m sitting in the bathroom by myself? Or perhaps I can ask J if I can lie down in his bedroom. It would be so much easier to meditate if I had a place to put up my feet or something rather than sit in this chair, especially when I’m so full. I feel my face sweating. This is what happens before I get sick. If I get up and leave the table I will have failed to complete meditating. It would be so much easier if I were in my home. I don’t want to throw up at J’s house. I barely know him. We only went on two dates. If I lie down in his bedroom, I’ve actually been there before—
Then at about minute fourteen I switched my breathing, my stomach suddenly felt better, I started nodding off at the table, closed my eyes—
“Time’s up!” J says brusquely.
J speaks first, I’m seated to his left and thus second to speak. J starts by talking about what went through his mind while he was meditating, so I do the same and talk about all the thoughts that went through my mind about feeling full.
“—and then I felt my face start sweating while I was meditating,” I say.
“You realize you just had a panic attack,” J says, somewhat bemused, or rather, amused—that someone had a panic attack while meditating and it wasn’t him.
“So what?” says A to my left, who prepared the squash dish. “Barf on J’s table. Who cares?” [“Barf” is an Americanism for “get sick” or “vomit.”]
And I think: A has a point. It’s all right to be human and get sick at other people’s houses—choose the wrong apartment—have sex with a terrible person—write a terrible novel.
Everyone has their turn and we get into a free discussion. Talk goes back to J’s problem. J’s having various physical symptoms of some kind and spent the last week seeing doctors. T, to his right (the older, more experienced writer) calmly, wisely tells J that it’s all in his head. “You’re fine,” “You’re healthy,” “If it’s what you think it is you’d be feeling completely different. Trust me.”
I look at J: “Or maybe you’re eating too much.”