A moment’s notice

Author: Kerry Temple ’74

Crosscurrents Kerry Temple Mason Jar 1
Illustration by Cap Pannell

 

I am here in the cardiologist’s office, in the examining room actually, sitting alone in this cubicle of waiting. I do not carry a phone, and there is nothing to read except informational placards about insurance and prescriptions and the wall art of human anatomy — clean, colorful and slightly unsettling depictions of the heart, diagrams of the circulation pathways. I must live in my head therefore, speculating on diagnosis and prognosis, knowing something is amiss in my heartbeat, the glitch in my pulse rate detected by stethoscope, confirmed by electrocardiogram, analyzed at the hospital by drinking that distasteful fluid, then foot-flapping on the treadmill, wired like a lab dummy, then lying motionless in a cozy cylinder as the liquid coursed through my bloodstream, revealing any evidence of coronary malfunction.

That is all behind me now, a montage of memories as I sit here waiting, alone in my head, mentally preparing for the future, wondering about pacemaker procedures, bypasses and stents, the thought of doctors pulling long veins from my leg to insert someplace else, with cameras slinking inside me as surgeons probe and patch, wielding micro-instruments to repair whatever needs mending — I don’t even know right now — while I lie there awake and aware, my body opened up like the hood of a car. Only gooshier.

Or maybe I’m OK.

Still, the scenario scares me, alerts my nervous system, probably raising my blood pressure, which is another concern as well — as discomfiting as my nighttime thoughts while I lie in bed, listening to my heart beat, trying to decipher the rhythms the doctors do not like, listening to the thump-thump-athump and nagged by reports I’ve read about how lack of sleep is closely tied to early death, to things like heart disease and heart attacks and heart failure. My uncertain future looms.

But I am here now, alone in the examining room, in the quiet, in this pause between back there and forward. Just now, and nothing more.

I have no choice.

By that I mean I have no choice but to live in this present moment. It is impossible to live otherwise except in one’s head, following those infinite threads that unspool backward and forward in time, into the abandoned past and imagined futures, all those places our thoughts take us, skyward and deep-dark-seaward, sometimes logically, often randomly, like a flock of starlings flying without pattern or presumption, but in ceaseless motion, nearly impossible to corral, as irresistibly out of control as floodwaters cascading over levees.

I have to stop and remember this, this idea of living in the present. It is not easy, especially for someone so accustomed to worrying, to fretting, to borrowing trouble from the future, as my mother used to say, telling me time and again that all fear comes from the unknown — from not knowing. And from filling the unknown with trepidation, angst and monsters, like the boogeyman lying in wait under the bed. “The thing you dread hasn’t even happened yet,” she’d say. “Why act like it has?” This psychic balm has proven true — my fears arise in anticipation, the real rarely as bad as imagined. Or not as expected. Presenting encounters in real-life that can be dealt with head-on, even if giving way to subsequent uncertainties that deliver their own inner grief in time. The human condition.

I have learned to compartmentalize, to break it down, to live in the moment as a defense mechanism. I am off to give a talk in Chicago. I worry about public speaking — which brings its own gnarly herd of butterflies — and worry about finding the place, about getting there on time, driving in the big city, about parking, the hurly-burly-honking commotion and hordes of people who fit in so naturally, energetically, purposefully, so driven, and my landing a quiet corner to eat before going on.

I have learned to take it one step at a time, to deconstruct, to meet each challenge as it comes, not worrying about steps three and four till step two has been accomplished. You can’t hop every barricade in one leap anyhow. One hurdle, one chore, one day at a time. Being mindful, being present in the moment. “Sufficient unto the day,” my mother would often say, invariably adding, “The Lord is my shepherd.”

She was a worrier, too. That’s how she knew the pep talks.

Then one day, when she was in her 70s and burdened with worry about her failing husband, their finances, her dying older sister, her only sibling (they had lived in the same house all their lives, all of us —and their mother — in that little frame house) and now so much weighing on her shoulders — all those worries and concerns her husband and sister had always lifted for her, the two of them now hospitalized — she sat at a stoplight, paralyzed with fright, panic mode, not knowing what to do next, then hearing a voice, the voice saying simply, “Trust me.” And from then on, her story went, her worries ceased. Sufficient unto the day.

I have had no such earth-quaking revelation, no such soothing voice of cosmic reassurance, but I am buoyed at times, grounded at times, with a wishful acceptance that life unfolds as it will and a faithful trust in divine manipulation. Let it be. And I try to remind myself to live in the moment. It takes practice.

“Our true home is in the present moment,” writes the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh. “To live in the present moment is a miracle” — the miracle “to walk on the green Earth in the present moment, to appreciate the peace and beauty that are available now.” That peace, he explains, is all around us, and also within us. “We need only to find ways to bring our body and mind back to the present moment,” and that is not merely a matter of faith, he says, but “a matter of practice.” Being mindful of the food we eat, the smile that greets us, the stranger we encounter; being fully present even as we wash dishes, rake leaves, pump gas or watch the graceful fluidity of a jogger loping past as we are stuck in traffic. Or spy the vast, cerulean blues of water and sky along Lake Shore Drive, sit in the window of that cafe on Michigan Avenue, watching the people bustle and flow along the Chicago sidewalk, savoring the peaceful pause in the final hour before addressing a room full of strangers on the second floor of the building across the street.

Or sit alone in the quiet of a doctor’s examining room.

So here I am, herding my untethered thoughts toward a disciplined coherence, a resolution, a landing pad. Here, there is no pain or suffering, no scalpel, IV or dire forewarning, no future, no past, nothing but this body in this chair, the world all outside that door, these walls, only as invasive as my mind allows . . . and it — my brain — is filtering now, eliminating this and that, letting go, turning away, reducing, until I am my heartbeat, my breathing, my awareness of toes and hands, stopping my foot from nervously tapping, focusing on the breathing, the rhythmic flow in and out, the inhale and exhale, like the methodic, melodic rise and gentle subsiding of seashore waters, of alternating waves and swells and ebbs that lap upon the sand, the ceaseless surge forward and fall away, the oscillating yin and yang, the slowing of motion, the light and fluttery breezes of briny, brackish air, deepening billows that inflate, deflate the lungs. Body and mind at rest. Maybe not peace yet, but surely calm tides. In and out. Locating myself in this time and place. The miracle that I am here at all. A kind of grateful prayer.

In the month before he died, my 89-year-old father was slowly losing his sweet mind to Alzheimer’s and dementia, steadily striding into unknown realms where others couldn’t follow. I went home to Louisiana for a while to care for him while my mother had a lengthy stay in the hospital. I fed and dressed and drove him to the hospital daily to see his wife of 60 years, and on every drive down tree-lined Fairfield Avenue, he’d look out the window and announce appreciatively, “Well, it’s another bright and sunny blue-sky day.” Every time. And each day it was indeed very sunny and blue — along this drive down Fairfield Avenue, neither of us suspecting he had but 17 days left, the same route he drove daily to work for 35 years, the same route we took together every day for 12 of those years as he drove me to schools near his office building. I don’t recall either of us mentioning the color of the sky back then; I don’t remember noticing the sky, but I have not looked at a blue sky in the 10 years since those final days together without thinking of him and hearing his voice. “Well, it’s another bright and sunny blue-sky day.”

Life does this, too, dispenses reminders for us to stop going so fast, to look around and listen.

For 10 years each October an older friend and I backpacked together. It can be cold in late October in the western mountains and desert Southwest, and I’d be huddled and bundled deep into my sleeping bag when he’d shake me awake, telling me to wake up, get up, come on out here, the sun will be up soon. And I’d stiffly, shivering, cold to the bone, drag myself out and pull on my boots and stand, and be grateful for the hot water he had boiled for coffee, hands cupped around my camping mug, stamping my feet, hoodie pulled over my head as the air lightened from an enveloping, heavy, brooding gray to a kind of veiled light, and soon a pale yellow would rise from the eastern rampart, the jagged horizon, light bleeding over the day, the earth rotating slowly, revolving on its giant axis, turning its face to the still-unseen sun that then bloomed like a glowing radiant yellow-white fireball spewing light across the land as it emerged over the rim of the earth, casting its rays, long shadows receding, the birth of a brand new day. The solemn rite of just another sunrise.

So on most days, these days, one of my first moves when I get out of bed is to open the blinds to my east-facing, second-story window and look out, welcoming the day, letting the light shine in and thinking of Walt and his doting observance, his being alert to the dawning of another day. His have run out. I still mark mine as best I can.

To remind me, to keep me here, attentive to the moment — and my life — about to pass, I stash memos in my path: pictures or poems, a cross, prayer feather or strand of Tibetan prayer flags, slips of paper where I’ve scribbled something someone said, posted like holy cards that say, “hey wait.” Life does this, too, dispenses reminders for us to stop going so fast, to look around and listen. Moonlight, wind in the trees, children’s voices on a playground, the regal flight of a red-tailed hawk, the splash of sunlight on a flock of autumn-colored trees, the scent of cinnamon. Wake-up calls intended to snag us if we’re not too busy and distracted to notice. What are we after? Always running late, clock-minded, head in a screen, multitasking, our time dictated by the phones we carry as our closest companions.

Moments matter. How best are they filled?

One of the challenges of living is apportioning time, knowing when to move and when to sit, when to answer the call and when to disembark, when to hustle and when to choose quiet, because bad things happen, too, at a moment’s notice.

Those are the best times, I think, the moments we are so engaged that we lose track of ourselves in something bigger, so absorbing, so fulfilling that we are no longer separate, distinct, external, but transcendent, as if caught at the intersection of time and timelessness.

One of the great paradoxes of human nature — and one I have puzzled over since childhood — is the sense of finding oneself by losing oneself — how we forget ourselves when we become so immersed, so enrapt, transfixed, so absorbed in some flight of play or game or self-dissolving engagement that there is no time, there is only the bare and thoughtless immediacy of the eternal moment, like when you were a child and there was nothing more fun, more engrossing, more demanding of your fullest attention, more fully embracing of your imagination than some round of hide-and-seek, kick-the-can or soccer or basketball, everyone moving in unchoreographed synchronization, totally given over to the full-grip intensity of the moment. The running and leaping and passing and shooting, defending, locked in the perfect unity of flow and sprint and counteraction with no forethought or intellection, just the rollicking joy and glory of unbridled spontaneity — physical, primal, heedless. And for me, so shy and self-conscious a boy, getting lost in those games, in the flow of those encounters, that escape to another realm — a timeless, temporary place — was so freeing that I knew there, more than anywhere else, I could be most totally myself.

Over the years I have occasionally tumbled back there — swept up in the music or lost in a book, or when writing or playing with my kids, or during those games of noontime basketball through the toughest period of my life — so fully immersed that troubles go away, a magic spell is cast, deliverance comes and everything evaporates but that singular endeavor. Nothing else matters, for now.

Those are the best times, I think, the moments we are so engaged that we lose track of ourselves in something bigger, so absorbing, so fulfilling that we are no longer separate, distinct, external, but transcendent, as if caught at the intersection of time and timelessness. Every daily moment presents that invitation — whether at sunrise or in the shower, en route to work or around the dinner table with family at night, even sitting in a doctor’s examining room, contemplating life and recalling William Saroyan’s echo of Thich Nhat Hanh: “The most solid advice for a writer is this, I think: Try to learn to breathe deeply, really to taste food when you eat, and when you sleep really to sleep. Try as much as possible to be wholly alive with all your might, and when you laugh, laugh like hell. And when you get angry, get good and angry. Try to be alive. You will be dead soon enough.”

Because we all await the gentle knock at the door as the latch clicks open. And that’s another reason to hold fast to each moment — to fend off those pangs of time passing, of children growing up, of life getting away from us as the river current speeds relentlessly toward the falls.


Kerry Temple is editor of this magazine.