An audio essay, which aired on Milwaukee's public radio, WUWM,on April 1, 2020.
Click here for the audio file. Following is the transcript.
I’ve always been intrigued by the practice of mindfulness and the art of living in the present. Over the years, I’ve bought books on mindfulness, listened to CDs, subscribed to podcasts, and always promised myself that I would be more mindful.
But like many good intentions, it never seemed to stick. Sometimes it was my Catholic upbringing that got in the way, with its fondness for guilt over past sins. Sometimes it was just old-fashioned worrying about the future, even the ridiculous kind, like whether you should take that yoga class.
Last fall, however, I had the good fortune to spend time with a mindfulness master. In classic Zen fashion, he never announced himself a master. He led by example.
I was in Brooklyn for three months, helping take care of my four-month-old grandson, River, as my daughter returned to work. Her older child, 2-and-half-year-old Cashel, would be at daycare.
New York schedules are crazy and the subways unpredictable, so I agreed to pick up Cashel from daycare. Around 4:30, I would put River in the stroller and we’d leave to get his brother.
Cashel was too big to carry, and so was expected to walk the half-mile back home. I worried how to keep him distracted. We were all tired by that time of day, and I knew I wouldn’t have my daughter’s patience should a toddler tantrum erupt. I also knew that concepts of the past and the future don’t mean much to a two-year-old. It was meaningless to bribe Cashel with the promise of a cookie when we got home. I had to figure out how to keep him happy in the here and now.
It ended up being less difficult than I feared. Toddlers, it turns out, are mindfulness masters. Their default is to live in the present. If they want a banana, they want it now. If they want to read a book, they want to read it now.
And because they are constantly trying to figure out the world, they are acutely aware of their surroundings.
I had become oblivious to many of the sights and sounds of New York. Not Cashel. He was the one, for instance, who noticed the nearby church bells that rang as we left daycare at 5 p.m.
Taking cues from Cashel, and building on his awareness of those bells, we developed a routine I came to treasure.
We’d begin by counting the church bells. As we continued our walk, we’d count the planes flying overhead toward LaGuardia airport, the number of city buses that drove by, or fire engines, or trucks. We’d describe the colors of the sky as the sun set. As the days grew shorter and the sky darker, we’d look for the moon.
At the time, I viewed our routine as a matter of survival. Looking back, I realize that I learned more about mindfulness during those walks than any book or podcast could ever teach.
A late-afternoon walk in Brooklyn with my grandsons Cashel and River.
I think about Cashel and River a lot during this era of COVID-19. And not just because they are far away and I want to see and hug them and know that everything is okay.
Perhaps more than any time in my life, I feel little control over the future. The past, meanwhile, seems increasingly irrelevant. I remind myself to live in the present. And I think of Cashel and our walks home.
My husband Bob and I live in a neighborhood where we can take walks while maintaining social distance. We have nowhere special to go and no need to hurry. In the spirit of Cashel, we try to be mindful. We stop and listen to the robins. We appreciate the daffodils and crocuses that are a harbinger of spring and the rebirth of life.
Last week, we spent several minutes watching the garbage trucks as they picked up the containers in our neighborhood.
“I wish Cashel were with us,” Bob said, echoing my thoughts. “He would love following the garbage trucks. It would make his day.”