The first time I went to a Vedanta temple with my friend Laura I wasn’t sure what to expect. I had to been to various church services, but before that day I had never even heard of Vedanta. We navigated through the surface streets of LA, neither sure where the hell we were going. Without GPS and smart phones we would have never made it to the small side street that wound up to a little patch of heaven in the middle of the busy metropolis. We parked and got out of the car, amazed by how quiet it was. You couldn’t hear the busy freeways, the honking car or sirens. We walked up to the temple on the path where her grandparents and parents had once walked and into the modest building. The ceremony had already begun and we took our place in one of the back rows. There were four other people in the pews, which were actual chairs, and those practicing the ceremony in the front of the room. I didn’t understand what they were chanting or what the ceremony meant, but I never understood Catholic Mass either. I sat and enjoyed the tranquility and watched those around me in a calm, peace with their heads bowed and their eyes closed. I decided to follow suit. I can meditate; I thought and tried to quiet my mind. Of course when you try to do a simple task it makes it nearly impossible. At first my head itched, then something outside caught my attention, a bird? A flash of light? Who knows? Then the compulsive thought, “am I doing this right? What am I supposed to be concentrating on? What are they saying?” Sometimes at the beginning of an acupuncture treatment the same thought runs on repeat through my mind. I try to remind myself that there is no right or wrong way to meditate or relax, but I can’t when I’m supposed to, maybe my mind is broken and I simply can’t be at peace on command. I’m at peace when I run or work out, during a long, familiar drive and when I’m writing, but not when I’m sitting still.
Walking back to my car that day Laura said, “I hate meditating like that. I always feel like I’m doing it wrong.” I laughed and told her I felt the exact same way.
I feel the same about grieving as I do meditating. I can’t seem to do it when it’s appropriate and I always feel like I’m doing it wrong. I must have been sick the day they taught us appropriate grieving techniques in elementary school. I haven’t lost a grandparent, parent, sibling or close friend. I see bad or horrible things on the news and I feel distant from the emotions I am supposed to be feeling. I let myself believe that nobody I love can ever die because that’s just cruel and unfair and life is already hard enough so god wouldn’t even dare taking someone away from me. I realize this is unrealistic and even childish, but if you could have held onto the belief that Santa is real for just a little bit longer, or that your babies could believe just one more year, wouldn’t you? I let myself indulge in this fantasy, because like Santa and the Easter Bunny, once I know I’ll never be able to go back.
I remember the day our friend Florian passed. She was my mother’s dear friend and I don’t think my mom thought it would upset me when she told me. I was living in New York and going to a summer graduate program at NYU. I think I had run out of money by then, or maybe it was the last week of my 30 day metrocard before I had to start walking to and from class – from Union Square to the Brooklyn Bridge. I remember I was alone when Mom called, and probably running late. My mother called and there was something in her tone that gave it away before she said the words aloud. There was the initial shock that I didn’t snap out of until one of my roommates asked if I was okay. “No,” was all I could get out before I ran out of the conference room where we had classes. I walked down to Battery City Park. I cried as crowds of people walked by, not a single one looking or asking if I was okay. I remember it was a cold June day and it was starting to rain. I was glad that this kept people out of the park. It was a weekday and people were scarcely scattered about the park I stood and stared at the Statue of Liberty, then wrote in my journal for a bit. There was a Mexican man and his son taking pictures and the father interrupted my journaling to ask if I could take a picture of both of them. He then explained how they had travelled all the way from Mexico City just to see the Statue of Liberty. I thought this was a strange pilgrimage since they weren’t American, but then I remembered all the castles and landmarks I visited in Scotland when I lived there. My eyes were probably red and my cheeks stained with tears, but this man just rambled on and on about their journey to get there. I listened, because that’s what I do when strangers want to tell me their story (and they always seem to seek me out for this task). I smiled, glad that they had made it and it meant so much to them to see Lady Liberty even though I just wanted to sit on a bench and pour my heart out in the blank pages of my journal. I was glad when they left without asking me to dinner or trying to hit on me, the man simply wanted to share their moment of joy and triumph with someone and I just happened to be the someone who was around. He wanted someone to know what that moment meant to him and I was able to hide my moment of sorrow behind his excitement.
I think about this day from time to time when something reminds me of Florian. I feel selfish for not thinking of my mother, when it was her close friend who passed. She talks about her often and I know she misses her. I feel ashamed that I didn’t try to contact her husband and children with condolences. I can remember being upset that I wasn’t living at home and couldn’t drive out to Oklahoma with my family to go to the funeral. This was the first of many events I have been too far away to attend. I wonder if someday I’ll regret living so far away. It will be seven years this summer and I still wonder if I grieved properly. Maybe I should have checked on my mother that afternoon.
Today, I opened up my email to the subject line, “Funeral.” My parents have been active members of the Tecumseh Lodge since I can remember. We have danced at the Tecumseh Labor Day Powwow every year for the last 20+ years. I get emails about member’s failing health, births, deaths, graduations and every other triumph and trial of life that they want to share with the lodge. I haven’t lived at home for ten years, and don’t always get home for the Labor Day powwow let alone for the lodge socials and other dances. I don’t usually recognize the names in the emails and delete them without reading the details, but this morning the name for the funeral notice was Jim Deer. I’m trying to remember if I saw Jim when I was home this past September for the 50th anniversary of the Labor Day powwow. Did I talk to him? Did he eat with our family over the weekend? Was he even there? As we always say, “if I knew that would be the last time …”
I didn’t know Jim any better than I knew Florian, but they both influenced my life more than they will ever know. I was extremely shy growing up, but at every dance Jim came over to our camp and asked me how I was doing and what I was learning in school. Jim lost his son after he left for the military. During off hours he was playing football with some of the guys and broke his neck. Growing up, I can remember wondering why Jim always looked a little sadder than everyone else. He lost his wife and adopted son far earlier than is fair in life, as well. Jim was a veteran and I remember watching him dance around the arena with the other veterans during the memorial songs. During Officer Candidate School (OCS), when I didn’t think I could push myself one more step, I thought of Jim and the other Veterans that I had watched through the years and kept going for them. During the Veteran’s song they danced through the arena with a humble pride, grace and unexplainable sorrow that I never quite understood until I went to war. My dad sang with Jim on the drum and I know he’ll be singing his favorite songs in heaven today and Jim will finally be at peace with his wife and sons.
I think today I will take my journal to the Vedanta temple here in San Diego. Instead of trying to sit still and meditating, wondering if I’m doing it wrong, I will take my journal and meditate my way and think of those I’ve lost and those I’m fortunate enough to still have here. Like we always do, I’ll swear I’ll try to call those I don’t see or talk to daily a little more often, even though I know I probably won’t.