You're going to have to trust me that anyone would dislike this woman. Not just me. We were in a meditation group together, a one-weekend thing. You couldn't call it a retreat because people went home at five and came back at nine. More of a trainer-retreat, something to get you started. The place in question gave them in sequences of five, and I was on number three. Even so, I don't think I recognized anybody. Each time around we were an anonymous job lot of people.
We meditated all morning, lined up on our cushions. Somebody with the temple sat up front to keep time with a little clock; she or he dinged out the start end points of meditations with a little metal disk and a miniaturized drumstick. De-e-eeng was the sound this made, small but you heard it. I had seated myself in the back, away from the volunteer, but you could hear it from there.
I was feeling terrible; I won't deny it. This was a time in my life. Work was crazy and I was planning to quit and go traveling after many, many years rooted at home. My mind was much troubled, so a lot of nights I didn't sleep, and then I'd go to work at the paper and feel rocky. It was really adding up in those days. That spring I had been hopeful. I'd looked forward to the end of my time at the paper. The demi-retreats I went to added to my mood. The world seemed to be acquiring some bright colors and air. But an incompetent boss came in, and anyway my mood dropped as my deadline for leaving came near. Nine years and now I didn't know what was ahead.
All morning on the cushions, after which people are separated into groups. Same membership for the group each time. Same moderators, same room where you're all assigned. You've spent all morning with your breath, and now you're going to talk about things and see what you've got. I think that was the idea.
Miranda, as I shall call her, sat in that room with me. She was a handsome woman, I'll admit, erect and swanlike. Her shoulders rode well back, her throat rose up. But her looks were in the British style: hawk nose, hair a light-orange beehive. Not appealing to me. Her manners were British too, a particular style that involved being noisy and articulate.
Our moderators were both smaller and quieter. One was a nut-like Puerto Rican man in his 50s or 60s, hair combed back and a heavy pair of glasses on his nose. The other was a brown-haired white woman in her 30s, probably not too far along. She was like many people you might find working a middle job at a medium-size publishing company. That's as far as my gift for description takes me.
Something you won't believe: During the walking meditation, when I was trudging along trying to have no thoughts, she looked up at me. Gawked up at me. I've been in this situation a few times, when all of a sudden you're sighting down your nose at somebody. She's turned into a crouched little bundle and she's staring at your profile. It's like the ground has dropped away and you're standing up there on a temporary mountain peak and somebody is cowering in view. What the…? She's just there, you didn't intend any of this, and now she's supposed to be your responsibility. I was just meditating, trying to meditate. This file of people trying to walk and meditate, everybody crowding each other front and back. I tucked my chin to my chest and kept trudging.
I mean… there was a certain lack of steadiness in the woman. If everybody is meditating, you're not supposed to gawk at anyone. Because there's something else to do and that's why you're all there. I mean, I don't feel like I was wrong. But maybe if I smiled more easily, that would have been better.
The people in the discussion group were all women, and I think most of them were in their late 20s and on into the 30s. Miranda was a few years older; she was the sort of person who at first looks to be late 20ish, but then you think, no, 30s, and then you find out she's 40 or so.
A room full of women: I wouldn't talk. Women have the right, etc. So I kept quiet. One woman did speak up, a good-natured, dizzy woman who giggled and had an apologetic manner. But her voice carried and she didn't mind being the one who goes first. She was medium height and fleshy, and had long red hair that was not greatly looked after. Nature could have meant her as Miranda's counterpart, either a sidekick or natural prey. I'll call her Julie.
What happened was simple. Julie broke the opening silence and talked about a problem with a boss. A man, and she didn't want to think it was something sexist. “Which is probably what it is,” said Miranda, throat up. There was the subdued semi-amusement that greets the first attempt at a joke among people who don’t know each other. Then the eyes shifted sideways, toward the Puerto Rican and myself, and there was the confused rustle that comes when strangers try to gather their amour propre. Silence descended and a little later I was talking.
Julie had been first up, I was second up, because somebody had to. None of the women had anything to say. I can't explain this behavior of theirs. They were like throw cushions piled in a room. They had a collective, slug-like willingness to defer, a need. If nobody in particular was there to defer to, they would defer to each other collectively, defer to the air. So: hunched shoulders and inert heads. And Julie, for her part, may have been a little abashed by the men-are-here moment, that glitch. Meanwhile, Miranda had settled back into herself.
So I talked. I talked about… loneliness maybe? Something that caused Miranda to speak up.
“That's simply your absurd American view of popularity,” she said. I took this on board: I'm a big one for arguments roundly examined, and I do feel like Americans may have a bit of a thing in regards to popularity, with people seeing social success as being celebrities on a microscopic scale. I mean, I felt like a chump who had been called on something, and I wondered what had happened to what I had been talking about, to my subject. But… popularity, okay.
“At university I had my circle of friends,” Miranda said triumphantly, laying down each proposition as if it were a wide, clean plank. “We studied together and shared each others' lives, and that was fine. We—” Her voice stilled. The mood in the room had just dropped atop her. I didn't see, since my eyes were on her as speaker. But the throw cushions, I expect, were expressing a joint misgiving at hearing themselves insulted—absurd Americans. It wasn't that they staged a rebellion, expressed resentment. My guess is that there was a room-wide dispirited slump. They dropped into their shells and the mood of the room caved in.
At any rate, Miranda shut up. Discussion staggered along fitfully; each of the women seemed to think their knees would speak up for them.
When she resumed, it was to let us know that she was American (because a citizen) and that her mother was American. Her air was propitiatory now. Catching herself during a discussion of New York manners: “Of course, this is a matter of sidewalk density, nothing to do with, with...” I thought even the propitiation took time and could have been dispensed with. But Miranda had herself in mind.
We didn't talk about meditation at all. These other topics came up, I don't know why: office disputes, manners, etc. All in all, not useful as discussions go.
Toward the end Miranda suggested that if we used religious forms of address that might break down distance. By way of example, she inclined her head gracefully in my direction and said, “Brother Tom.” Oh brother, I thought. The little brown-haired woman spoke up to say it wouldn't be necessary.
After lunch individual attendees met with individual volunteers. My talk was with the short, brown-haired woman, the one who had gawked at me during walking meditation and then sat by and watched as group discussion wandered. She sat on side of a desk and I sat on the other, and I was supposed to talk to her about the private thoughts in my head regarding meditation. I went through with it. At one point I said I had trouble going against decorum, being spontaneous. “Yes, you do,” she said. She said it to a corner of the room a foot or so off from my face, and her voice was dull and quiet but with the words distinctly formed. I have heard a few such sotto voce comments spoken in flat, dead voices by small women. The film jumps and you resume. So, okay. I picked up again.
At lunch I corrected another attendee, a bohemian cabdriver of some sort, who had the wrong actor for a film. “John Garfield,” I said regretfully. I hate that voice. I've heard it a few times: the regretful correction, as if you were sad to see somebody with his pants hanging so low to the ground. And that time I fell into it. Because of tension, I hope; I don't try to be obnoxious, and I think the cabdriver had seemed all right until my misstep. After the misstep… oh well. Toward the end of lunch I said this was my third of the semi-retreats. “You're rushing it,” he said, jolly. So, okay.
Meditation through the afternoon. Big-group discussion, all the attendees together, with another of the volunteers up front. But this is wrap-up stuff, nothing big.
As everybody filed out, I went to the front of the room so I could look at the hanging metal disk and the logbook the volunteer had been using. The logbook rested on the floor, open, and apparently whoever meditated upfront and worked the gong kept some sort of record there. I don't know what.
“I was wondering too,” Miranda said. She was standing there at my elbow, beaming at me. I nodded and smiled, said, “Oh yeah” in a mildly lifting tone, and then excused myself. I didn't like her. My smile was tight, of course. I have to be very sure of the person I'm with before my smile opens up.
Back home in Queens, I looked at the white ceiling and felt what the meditation had done. My thoughts seemed like people you saw from stories up, dots on the sidewalk. What I thought was the same old stuff, but its presence inside my head had been shrunk down. It was like a bit of buzzing in the middle of a dark space. My head felt larger.
I don't remember if I slept that night. As mentioned, insomnia was a big thing for me during this period.
Sunday. There at nine, meditating on the cushions. At lunch I had to lie down: I was that tired. A gray, burly man identified as Allen Ginsburg's last boyfriend showed me to an empty stretch of the meditation room. I stretched out.
Miranda came in wearing black tights, her buttocks riding high. She marched past me and sniffed. (I'll note that I was 20 pounds or so overweight.) She proceeded through her yoga routine. I didn't look: I just wanted to sleep.
Our group had a second discussion at some point. Before or after lunch, I don't know. I said nothing. Julie, the obliging redheaded woman, said into the silence something that wound up involving Vishnu, and for whatever reason she mentioned his elephant trunk. But the god with the trunk is Ganesha; some of the storekeepers in Queens keep a little statue of him next to the cash register, for luck.
Miranda said, “The deity you have in mind is named Ganesha. He is also called… Conception.” The pause didn't mark hesitation. It was meant as a graceful little swoop, a dip, before her voice allowed the payoff to flutter home. Miranda spoke with exquisite gentleness, to the point of fluting. She bestowed a serene smile in Julie's direction and then settled back into herself again.
No one said anything for 30 minutes. Not the moderators, not the throw cushions, not me, not Miranda and not Julie. Miranda smiled to herself and seemed pleased with her graciousness. Julie stared at the floor. The other women stared at their knees, as usual, but with Julie it was definitely the floor. And eventually the discussion session came to an end.
We meditated through the afternoon. When we stopped for breaks, I noticed how Miranda took an extra half-minute to knock off. We'd been told about that: Don't snap yourselves out like you were daydreaming, respect the experience. I suppose a few people took the advice. None took it to the extent that Miranda did, and she looked especially like a pleased swan while she was at it.
She always had to feel like she was dotting somebody's i, I decided. Whatever efforts were going on, she had to be the one who capped them and showed everybody how it was done.
After the meditation, another all-group discussion. This time the volunteer at the front of the room was the brown-haired woman. Leading us, she enjoyed a triumph. “I said to myself, 'Why not just be happy,'” she told us, remembering the moment when her meditation practice snapped together for her one evening on a crowded bus. The room stirred with head nodding and murmured approvals. The woman shared out small crackers and bits of curry and pat so everyone could taste them with their eyes closed—direct sensory experience bypassing the ego. The room stirred again, this time with bustle over the crackers and then excitement over the direct sensory experience.
The brown-haired woman told us to stand up and share moments when our sensory impressions had winged their way into our minds faster then the conscious mind could net them. I paraphrase, but that was the idea. An English girl stood up and spoke—not Miranda, but also flute-voiced. “I walked and walked,” she said, “and I was heartbroken.” She accented the middle syllable, and her voice gave a sad little rise and fall when she did so. A young man in the row ahead of me, an intelligent-seeming fellow with a beard that was small but not offensively so, stirred and looked at her closer. She wasn't bad: a bit of a baby elephant in her shape, but well-coiffed and pretty. Big as they were, her legs still had a nice line in her stockings, and the stocking themselves were a touch: You didn't expect to see someone dressed so formally here.
The girl told us about the orange rectangle that the early day's sun stretched across the dust of that little village (Italy?). The room was silent as people listened.
After her, others. We heard about ice cream flavors, the smell of cut grass, coffee, prisms. No, I didn't say anything. My shoulders felt like they were going to buckle under my head; I wondered about pitching forward. And I thought the sensory-experience discussion was dumb. It was like show-and-tell for “Look how precious I am.” (Ferns, raindrops on ferns.) Instead of godlessness you had people fetishistic their sensitivity.
Miranda had her hand up. Her arm, really: it rose in its slim line toward the ceiling and showed no strain—yoga. The hand was just at the top of it. Miranda had her head inclined forward and her eyes half-shut. She waited and her moment arrived. The small brown-haired woman called on her, I think possibly with a bit of conscious good grace. They had had a private session together, and possibly the brown-haired woman talked to Miranda about not dominating discussion.
If there had been friction, all turned out perfectly for the two women. Miranda spoke and capped the brown-haired woman's event. That was good for Miranda, and the event, already a success, became that much more of a success.
Miranda, rising gracefully to her feet, spoke of her eagerness to rent a car and drive out West, “so I could absorb and revel in the beauty of my new home, my country.” One clear morning, in a silent corner of the world where beautifully colored mountains cut their ridges against the sky, she saw a flock of birds engaged in formation flight. They worked their way through the air, all together, joined to form rectangles of movement whose lines and angles shifted as the birds flew. “They turned and turned and turned again until I thought they flew for the sheer joy of flying,” Miranda told us. Her third “turned” had a good deal of tremble in the vowel, to mark emotion.
She was a hit. I went home that night wanting to wipe the place off my feet.
A month later, out of curiosity, I attended a Sunday administrative meeting where anybody interested in the temple was welcome to show up and hear the temple's responsible officers. The little brown-haired woman saw me from across the room. She saw me hard, you might say. Her eyes were big but frozen. “Hello, Connors,” she said, tragically, from across the room. She said it like “Hello, shambling phenomenon that represents the tragedy of the world and signals my exile into a life where I can have no mate.” I have heard that hello from other short women.
I never saw Julie, the dizzy red-haired woman, again. I never saw Miranda again. I did, just a few years ago, Google her name and then absorbed the blow that she had written a book of art history. It was published by a top press, let us say Oxbridge University Press. This was on top of her usual occupations, the ownership and running of a successful yoga studio in Manhattan. I still think she was a jerk.
Anyway, that was my fifth and last meditation semi-retreat before the year ran down and it was time for me, at last, to leave New York. I quit my job and went off backpacking. I backpacked for two years, just about, and I didn't get laid once. Imagine that.