March 2017 – Has the plastic food container I’ve just pulled from the fridge lost its mind? Doesn’t it watch the news? Doesn’t it know how discomforting and dispiriting the world has been? All I wanted to do was store some mandarin rinds, and now this.
I blame the rabbi. Rabbi Jordan Bendat-Appell, my friend and teacher, to be specific. One of the things I’ve most enjoyed at the meditation retreats I’ve attended with him have been the conversations that have followed the silence. And so it was, in the dark hallway of a former monastery, that Jordan told me of a practice he’d taken on, in which he treated commercial signs as mindfulness instruction. Drawn to the idea, I’ve meant to try it ever since. And today, I’ve decided, is the day to start.
The plastic food container has one word on it. Little more than a trademarked adjective.
There’s a case to be made for my exercising veto power, but it’s the first sign that’s registered in my sight today, and what’s the point of practicing only teachings you want to receive? Like it or not, this day has called for gladness practice.
So I note how comforted I am by the warm air blowing on my feet from the vent below the kitchen sink. A little later, I take a moment to appreciate my ability to effortlessly pull my bedroom door shut, while making a backwards half-circle to avoid knocking over the large suitcase with the broken handle that I am about to lug through the rush hour commute on a rain-chilled morning.
Gladness like gratitude
When the bus pulls up, riders are crammed right to the windshield. But time is tight, and a crowd in front doesn’t always equal a crowd in back. When the door opens, I call out, “Any chance of people backing up!?” I am surprised by the absence of an accusatory tone in my voice.
“I doubt it,” the driver says. “They’re back as far as they can go.”
But just then, a passenger – a young guy, olive-skinned, saucer-sized studs in both ears; the opposite of me, on the surface – holds up his palm. Wait, he’s signalling. He holds up a finger. A passenger is getting off. I start to board, but he holds his palm up again, then two fingers – a peace sign, and an indication that two more are getting off. They do, and he waves me on. I grab my suitcase by the nub where the handle used to be, and loft it aboard with surprising ease. Glad for this kind of strength. Glad for my navigator, for the friendly driver, for the friendliness I’ve found within myself. For the slashes of rain against the windshield.
The subway is crowded, and I forget to be glad for the most part, but when I change lines, I hear a muffled voice say “welcome.” I don’t know where it came from, but my mind flashes to a favourite lunch spot, where stepping through the door sets off an invisible contraption screeching a tinny greeting of “Hello, welcome!” It’s kitschy and annoying, I’ve always thought, but now I’m thinking it’s an excellent reflection of the quiet hospitality with which the proprietress receives her customers. And I am glad for tinny and kitschy.
Is the plastic food container onto something? It’s said that natural selection allowed humans to survive because of our skills for anticipating the worst. And also, that this characteristic doesn’t serve us as well as it once did. Perhaps the food container is helping me remember to see the best.
Gladness like gladness
A different day, and a morning walk to the subway. I step on a snow-powdered sidewalk, suddenly skidding on hidden ice, then regaining my balance. Glad for the skid and glad for the steadiness.
The voice of a little girl behind me shouts, “Mommy, look!” and her unbridled excitement enthuses me.
Before I know it, moments inspiring gladness are giddily toppling upon one another.
The sun trying to break through the overcast, giving a subtle sheen to the grey. A black poodle sitting on the neighbourhood hockey rink, its thick front hooves mirrored in the ice, as he waits for his master to give him something to do.
Bare trees, each branch with its own character. A puddle on the curb, reflecting sky from amidst the asphalt.
This and that, that and this.
The scrunch of salt beneath my footfall, the occasional pop of a crystal exploding under my heel.
A twinge in my shoulder from carrying my gym bag. Soreness in my thigh from having resumed my squash game. Aches, pains. Alive, alive.
A bird calls out from one side of the street. A bird on the other echoes a response.
I start planning my day.
I tune back to the birds.
At this moment, it feels like it could always be this way. Like I could always be this way.
Soon, too soon, the feeling of grace starts to feel tempered. This won’t last. Grace doesn’t work that way. Maybe it’s not supposed to. There are too many sabretooths out there from which we need to defend ourselves and the less fortunate amongst us.
A plea forms within me: as I wade through the storm, may I be buoyed by the knowledge that there are reasons we choose to endure, and they are constantly around us. Gladness and grace, take your leave if you must, but return to me, and while I await your return, I will do my best with what I’ve got.
Let’s get mindful
Pick a sign. Any sign. Or let it pick you. Is there a teaching in it? Or a suggested practice? Unless you’re sure there isn’t, give it some consideration. See if it brings a shift in how you relate to the world or offers a reminder of something you sometimes lose sight of. And then, as you go through your day/week/month, keep it in mind, and see where that takes you.
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