Years ago, my friend Kathleen told me that one of her favourite things to do was just to sit and stare out the window. Sit and stare? At what, I had asked. And what are you doing while you are staring? Knitting? Folding laundry? Surely something productive. But no, she said, she just looked out the window and enjoyed the view.
This was not a totally new concept to me. I’d seen people do it. My grandfather, at our cottage in the summer, out on the chaise longue. Sitting, staring, and smiling. He looked content. But I thought that was the kind of content that old age brings. He couldn’t run around like a wild banshee anymore, like my sister and I, so he had to be content with watching the world go by.
But a perfectly healthy woman in her thirties just sitting and staring? And to call it one of her favourite things? To say I couldn’t wrap my head around it is an understatement. And yet, there was a part of me that wished I could be that calm, that wished I didn’t always have to be running around “doing.” I kind of wondered what it would be like to just BE.
This leads us to the summer of 2003. A string of medical calamities had me laid up for about a month. First strep throat, then a bike accident, all topped off with a killer flu. Summer in Nova Scotia is short enough without this kind of thing happening, let me tell you! It was in the middle of a fevered night, that I came to know there was a fat man living in my head. Be assured: this knowledge did not come from an overdose of NeoCitran.
I could see him clearly (one of the downsides of having a lively imagination): greasy hair, bad complexion, beer in hand. Sitting in a sloppy old lawn chair with a sagging bottom, his t-shirt hiked up to expose a fat hairy gut. Behind his lawn chair was the door and behind the door were the voices. His job was to keep the door shut so I couldn’t hear the voices. When he was doing his job, the voices were muffled. They pounded against the door and tried to shout through it. They huddled and conferred and traded all their latest bits of gossip about me and how I was failing. They scribbled things down, plotted, planned, and waited, until the next time the fat man let the door fly.
Which he was not supposed to do if I played his game right.
The fat man required payment for silence from the voices. Not money or the promise of future happiness. No, this doorman required distraction. He just wanted to be entertained. It could come in any form: reruns of Law and Order, gossip, Cheezies, a few glasses of wine, bad news of the world. He wasn’t picky – the point was that there needed to be a constant stream of things for him to consume. And when they failed to come fast and furious (like when I was sick as a dog and lying in bed thinking I was dying), he didn’t even give a two-minute warning. He just leaned back in his saggy old lawn chair, belched, and gave the door a yank.
And out they flew. The voices in my head. Demons. The critic. Gremlins. Whatever you call them, we all have them, and the last thing you want is for them to be free.
In the middle of those fevered summer nights, the terrible voices were set free to roam the shadows of my room, calling to me from behind the curtains and then zooming in close to nag in my ear. “What are you DOING with your life?! What is wrong with you? Can’t you do anything right? You’re not doing anything meaningful. You don’t follow through on anything. You’re a failure. You’re incompetent. For God’s sake! Pull up your socks, give yourself a shake, smarten up.” You get the gist. On and on and on they raged.
No wonder we each come up with our own brand of distraction to hush that kind of cheering section. Better to stay busy and distracted than to have to face the truth of the matter.
And that’s what the voices sound like, don’t they? The truth about us. The things that other people are too polite to say.
Once I realized the crazy dynamic going on in my own head, it became clear that I was enslaved, bowing and curtseying, offering my daily dose of distraction, dragging with me peeled grapes and goblets of wine and light comic banter; juggling and miming and placating my mind like it was a seething tyrant or a volcano ready to blow.
I understood now why I was terrified of silence. So afraid of a little silence, so afraid of that fat man opening up the door, that I kept myself constantly distracted. Reading, writing, talking, ingesting, planning. The radio was always on. I read until I fell asleep. I got restless on holiday. I gave myself no time to just be quiet. There was no peace. No wonder I couldn’t imagine what my friend Kathleen could possibly enjoy about just gazing out the window.
Suddenly seeing the truth is hard. You either have to live with it then, eyes open, or change it. Changing this situation would mean being quiet and not so busy. It would mean enduring the voices. I was terrified. If my own mind attacked me when I was at my lowest, what lengths would it go to if I approached the tyrant empty-handed and smiling like a fool? What would I say? “Um, excuse me? I wondered if we might have a conversation?” I imagined my tremulous voice.
When I recovered from my string of maladies (which I now believe was a nudge from the universe), I decided to do something about this war in my head. I decided to start small, to stop the flow of distraction for a brief period daily. Only 10 minutes. Don’t get me wrong. This was not meditation! I kept my eyes open and I was allowed to fidget. I even let myself sit in a beautiful urban park. The point wasn’t to deprive myself of all stimuli, it was to sit still and DO nothing. The results were life-changing…
Stay tuned for the next post, with my apologies (I was raised on cliff-hanger mysteries and adventure stories – what can I say?).