I closed my eyes and remembered staring at my drink, leaning elbows on a raw wooden table. I hadn’t spoken to him in years, but he had appeared, unanticipated, thinner than I remembered, and with a beard in a North Carolina smokehouse. We had both traveled thousands of miles from different directions for the same wedding. The sight of him was like falling into ice water. I didn’t know where we stood after so much cold, silent time.

But as I sat next to him, looking down at my glass, a smile overtook me. I sensed he was smiling, too. We were feeling the comfort of each other, the warmth from a fire we both thought had long since burned out. There was no need to remember the details, to tell our sides, or to try to make verbal sense of it. Words would have muddled the pristine joy of mutual forgiveness. It was a discussion between nervous systems, as we sat, feeling the giddy wonder of each other’s presence again.

We had never been lovers, the hot-burning brevity that leaves shadows on the eyelids for fleeting moments. We were friends through the brutal winter of young adulthood. We had shouldered the sadness of each other’s rejections, listened to mundane stories over homemade sandwiches, invented games in a swimming pool during summer, and laughed and gasped in wild hilarity with each other. We had stopped tending to our friendship after we had been burned, believing that the fire did it on purpose. In an instant, on that rickety southern bench, the blame was choked out by an effervescent gratitude for this familiar warmth. We sipped our beers and loved each other quietly as the pink scars of years faded.

After a short while, we hugged a good, solid hug, and went our separate ways. But even untended, those old embers still glow hot enough to light.

I closed my eyes today as the first chills of autumn floated in on lengthening shadows and soaked into my skin. I thought of that hug — his big bearlike body wrapped around mine, holding me like I’m something precious — and I warmed up.

Originally written around 9/30/2016

The retreat center sits up in Marin County, past Sausalito and Mill Valley. You get to it after you pass everything notable, all the shops and restaurants and neighborhoods, and there are just trees and hills and hills and trees for a few minutes. You’ll see a little offshoot on the right with a simple sign, and you’ll know you’re in the right place if you pass the horse at the front. Keep going.

That main road will take you everywhere you need to go — all the way to enlightenment, if that exists. You just park your car in the dirt lot and haul your luggage up into the hills, where you’ll notice the wheels of your suitcase are the loudest sound for at least a mile in each direction. Pass the half-closed Tibetan-looking gate, the wild turkeys, and dining hall, and settle into your simple dorm.

I’m pretty comfortable with Spirit Rock, now. I’ll have spent 21 days here in total this year. I’m a few days shy of that currently, so I guess I only needed about 18 days to feel at home. This isn’t true everywhere. I don’t actually feel so at home in the house we’re renting, and I don’t even know what city feels like home or where I want to settle, even for the next couple of years.

I first noticed how at home I felt at Spirit Rock when I told new folks where to find the aprons and that they should tie the ends of them before they put them in the laundry so that they don’t get tied up in the washing machine. These are instructions I’ve heard each time I’ve come because I’ve worked in the kitchen every time. Yogi Jobs, they call them.

Upon hearing me describe Yogi Jobs, a friend sarcastically remarked, “Sure, we’ll call them ‘Yogi Jobs’ and say it’s part of the practice.” And while she makes a decent point, a major reason I feel at home is because I do this menial labor. This is the kind of work I only do in my own home, and it’s the kind of thing that makes you care if someone else comes along and makes a mess. Washing pots in my first retreat actually guided me to extinguish my gag response to touching other people’s dirty, smeared, probably spitty, food vessels. I really did learn that I could be with disgust and just see it arise and pass.

The Yogi Job is probably my favorite part of retreat because it’s most like real life. You have to interact a little bit with other humans, — handing pots over or asking staff what to do with something — and you’re doing stuff you’d normally do in your own home, except, here, you’re in a highly sensitive state, even if you aren’t actively trying to be mindful. Not speaking or staring into a glowing rectangle of digital hypnosis seems to go a long way toward naturally heightening the nuance of life. The color of a leaf can be catalyst for tears.

Doing my little bit, washing my few pots, seems relatively important to making things run smoothly. I’m grateful to the cooks who used them, (the food is excellent) and I want them to have nice clean pots ready for the next meal. If I didn’t wash them, it’d be more work for someone else. I feel needed, appreciated, and frankly, quite accomplished about my pot-washing abilities. If I left early (which I have once before), I’d feel quite guilty to leave my Yogi Job undone (which I did).

I’m pretty sure the effects of the Yogi Job are not an accident. Being part of creating the experience for everyone makes you more invested in it and more empowered to fix something if you feel it needs fixing. It makes a meditation retreat different than going to spa and being a client who gets to complain about the water being too cold or the towels being too fluffy. You feel more like family, since you’re not only getting your hands dirty, but you’re also indirectly taking care of others.

The Yogi Job only takes about 45 minutes each day. It’s a tiny investment, and at the end of it, there’s still time to go explore the pristine land, land that seems to remain in centuries past, well-before colonization, somehow silent despite the sounds of the breeze bending the grasses and the evening chirping. The hills hold the refuge like fingertips pressed through the cloth of the ground. Maybe it’s the fingers of nature, or of god trying to scoop up this one spot and hold it a little closer. There’s a safety, a trust that they won’t collapse in, that it will be just the same a hundred years from now.

Originally written 9/24/14, updated in 2017

It’s a Wednesday afternoon, and I’m not busy. I haven’t been busy all week, as a matter of fact. I have a list of items that I could be working on, but no pressing deadlines or meetings. My humble number of clients are either out of town or have cancelled because they’re just getting back into town and don’t need me yet.

I feel fine about this lack of busy-ness at the moment, but this is a relatively new experience.

Prior to writing this article, it occurred to me that maybe we are all trying to be busy to distract us from something that’s difficult, the same way procrastination consists of your mind finding the need to fix the tiniest of aberrations on your fingernail as far more important than completing your essay. But just as I finished filing my nail, a NYTimes article came out on exactly this subject. The author referenced research that indicates people would rather give themselves electric shocks than be alone with themselves without external stimulation. It discussed “busy” as meaning overcommitted and overextended with little time to reflect and how people want to be busy to avoid difficult reflection.

From there, I found an earlier and more entertaining NYTimes article, in which Tim Kreider distinguishes busy from exhausted and notes that “busy” is mostly self-imposed. He suggests that we want to be busy to avoid facing the meaninglessness of our lives.

Being busy implies that we’re valuable. We have stuff to do because people want us to do that stuff and are likely paying us because we’re worth it. I’m not sure we’re trying to avoid meaninglessness so much as we’re desperately seeking meaning. Except that we mostly don’t find actual meaning or a sense of being truly valued. We find substitutions that look like it from the outside, and it seems we would be extremely embarrassed to admit that we aren’t really finding meaning through our own constructed busyness.

For most of us, we perpetuate this blueprint probably because this is all we’ve ever seen. Our friends or colleagues seem to be happy, so we should do what they do. If we’re not actually happy while spinning six plates and dancing on a ball, we assume the problem is with us or that those aren’t the right plates. Perhaps it’s because there are so many people following this path of constant distraction that it seems like it must be the “right” way. The shared reality is that we’re supposed to be busy, and if we aren’t, something is wrong. It’s a strong subliminal force.

Aside from people overtly telling us that things are going well and they’re really busy, this force seems to function through our automatic interpretation of lots of external cues to be indicative of the internal states of others, like walking quickly indicating the need to be somewhere important. For me, the relief to my confusion was in seeing these implicit comparisons in action.

A few weeks back, I attended a non-residential meditation retreat, meaning that I’d do meditation stuff from 9-5, but I still went home to my apartment at 5pm, interacting with the world only as my commute necessitates. For that week, I wasn’t producing anything at all. I wasn’t, to the naked eye, busy. The first couple of days were rough. I kept feeling this sense of guilt and emptiness that I couldn’t really shake. I tried to justify it to myself: this was something I had planned for, an experience that would build skills and insight, that I was actually doing very important mental work. I truly believed these things, but the guilt persisted.

We did an exercise where we took a subway ride — something common in our daily lives that we don’t usually bring mindfulness to — and then wrote a list of what we recalled noticing.

On the train, I sat down and looked down at the floor, in typical New Yorker fashion. Some very nice feet in sandals entered my view. I overtly noticed her clean pedicure, but there was also this very subtle sense of comparison happening. There was this knowing that she was better than me. It wasn’t even a thought in language. It was just a hint of a feeling, like a belief that is pre-existent. She probably made more money than me, was respected by her boss who probably wouldn’t respect me, she probably has a shiny little husband who loves her but who wouldn’t like me. I didn’t think any of these thoughts but I would have agreed with them if you had asked.

In listing what I remembered from the ride, I could see this happened with disturbing frequency. I noticed good-looking guys in suits, but there was this slight assumption that they wouldn’t be interested in me, of course — they were valuable and I wasn’t. I stepped aside to let a suited man go out of the subway before me, since he obviously had somewhere important to be and I didn’t.

The pattern pivoted mostly around nice things (bags, suits, shoes) that I interpreted as an indication of importance. Indications of being more important than me, more specifically. I could see that the beliefs about myself extended from there: I should be out making money rather than literally paying to do nothing for a week. Since I’m not making money, I’m not valuable. The guilt got heavier with the recognition of that simple belief. There was also some sense of unfairness and futility, like the world doesn’t see my value; I was defending myself by blaming the world.

If these thoughts are any indication of my mental patterns in general life, this would probably explain my incessant low-level anxiety. I may have been nearly constantly experiencing some negative emotion because of this pattern of tacitly comparing myself negatively to others. It’s no wonder why I generally feel some struggle with my self-worth when I’m not working or in school. I’ve been constantly telling myself in various ways that I suck and everyone else is better.

The next day of the retreat, I kept an eye out for these sneaky comparisons. I also gave my mind almost no room to create them by staying in my senses, focusing on the sounds and the feelings on my skin. The guilt evaporated. It no longer seemed like I was valueless for not being busy. The concept of busy vanished, along with the concept of value. It was just me and my senses, without interpretation. And I was okay, apparently.

For me, this seemed to be how the gravitational pull of the Busy Delusion was exhibiting — in an almost unobservable, multi-layered belief structure, falsely equating having expensive stuff or being well-groomed with value. Since observing these patterns, I haven’t felt the same strange nauseous anxiety on days when I’m not busy. I still don’t like being unfocused or unproductive when I’m intending to be, but that sensation doesn’t have the same guilt-soaked undertone.

Maybe people don’t want to be alone with their mind if they’re subject to similarly painful patterns of self-deprecation, but it was extremely helpful to see them occurring in something I do everyday. Obviously, it wouldn’t have been helpful if I thought those beliefs had merit. I needed to be able to see that just because people appear to have it together doesn’t mean they do. Just because people say they’re busy, it doesn’t mean they’re enjoying their life or that they’re busy with the things they want to be doing. It might even mean the opposite.

Perhaps we are confusing being submerged in an ocean of obligations with being engaged in an activity. While I wasn’t busy in the way people usually mean it while on that meditation retreat, I was doing something. It’s just not a thing that most of society would look at and judge as worthwhile. Maybe society doesn’t know what’s best.

She has been the forgotten cat, the middle child, the outcast, the runt for most of her life. She was born in a dingy apartment closet in suburban Orlando, but she has lived in Manhattan, Brooklyn, LA, San Francisco, and is retiring on an island at 21lbs.

She was the only one of her siblings not to have a breeched birth, but she came out the smallest, and her mother didn’t lick her clean. When she was a few days old, we arrived home to find she was missing from the nest. If we stood still, we heard a muffled peeping from somewhere in the apartment. We discovered her in the bathroom cabinet, under the sink, twitching and still blind from birth.

It seems strange to think of animals intentionally disowning their children, but it apparently happens all the time in nature. According to an article in National Geographic, when newborn animals are sick, or if there is a shortage of resources, many mothers will eat their young, which provides needed nutrition and prevents predators from following the smell of rotting carcass to the den. Nina could have had it worse.

After a week or two, things turned around a little bit. I had taken Nina from the nest to show off the adorableness of a kitten to a neighbor. She was tiny, with one tan half of a face and the other black. As soon as I was just outside our front door with a wide-eyed Nina clinging to my shirt, I heard the mother scratching and wailing at the inside of the door. I opened the door and set Nina down, and the mom immediately picked her up by the scruff and jogged back to the nest.

Nina grew to an overweight adult cat in Florida, and we noticed she seemed a little off, a little empty-eyed. She tended not to look at people’s faces like the other cats. She would just see a human hand and dive into it, snuggling it whether you wanted her to or not, often pushing with such force and bad timing that it would spill a drink or knock the glass into your teeth, launch your hand off a keyboard, or wake you up.

When we moved to New York, we stuffed Nina, her two littermates, and a skinny dog into a minivan with our stuff, and drove a thousand miles, arriving exhausted at our new 250 square foot apartment in the West Village. It was a lot to ask of four animals, but they managed to make it work, the cats quickly finding a spot on the window sill, overlooking the brick of the building next door and the pigeons that would coo amorously in the shaftway on other window sills.

But it wasn’t great for them. Nina started having seizures, thrashing and spitting. She had a seizure on the way to the vet. We saw no reliable correlation between the seizure and anything going on around. We’d see them happen once a week or so, and the vet didn’t seem to have much to say about it. They said there wasn’t really much to do as long as she wasn’t hurting herself, which she wasn’t. We just considered it part of her, and we’d clean up the puddles of urine and spittle she left behind and give her a bath during which she would dissociate, staring out of the window, her body stiff, still and soapy. The whole process continued as we moved to Brooklyn and it lessened in LA, where we had around 900 square feet and lots of sunshine.

When we moved back to New York to the Upper West Side, to a 400 square foot apartment with access to a walled-in backyard, the seizures almost completely stopped. I recall her having one seizure there, under the bed. The bedroom was exactly the size of the bed, and we couldn’t get to her to comfort her, not that our attempts at comforting were necessarily successful. She came out on her own eventually, seeming as normal as she ever was.

We lived in one more Upper West Side apartment before departing from New York. On 76th street, Nina found a mouse. She was the only one who seemed to take an interest in our intruder, sitting by it proudly as it wriggled. We put the injured critter in a box with some dog food and water, high up on a shelf where the cats couldn’t reach it. However, the mouse regained its strength at some point in the night and managed to venture out. It was not revivable this time after Nina had played with it.

In San Francisco, we rented a two story house, and the cats, now 12 years old, spent most of their time upstairs, especially after we got a half Border Collie puppy — the herding instinct was strong. I hardly saw them outside of the time I spent in my office. But in considering raising a puppy, I was trying hard to make him feel safe and loved. Thinking of what Nina’s experience of being kicked out of the nest as a little baby must have been like, I started to make a point of giving her love. I’d pick her up and hold her when she came purring and cackling around my desk.

Ronie, our male cat, had also been making a point to love her, but this is in the more aggressive way of mimicking a mounting. He leaps on her from behind and bites her neck as she cries. He doesn’t do this to our other cat, just Nina, still the runt in his mind, perhaps.

Just recently, we’ve moved to over an acre on an island near Seattle. It’s a warm summer with long, sunny days. Nina has been out the most of all the cats, interacting with us more than she has in many years. She’s been hopping up on the dining table, her fat pooling around her as she sits, hiding any indication of back legs. Her round eyes, the lids slightly melted torward her nose giving her a constantly tired appearance, seem to actually look at our faces a little bit, now, to see if we want to pet her before she plows into our hands. She’s been very calm with the puppy, trusting him to sniff her, and swatting him gently if his eyes widen to a concerning extent. Yet more unusual behavior, she’s been sampling my cooking, eating bits of tuna salad and licking the salt from corn chips. She seems finally to be comfortable, as though she knows she’s wanted here. She still eats plastic and throws it up and annoyingly scratches at our bedroom door at night, but she seems more herself than I’ve seen her, at age 14.

Step one:
Go to the cafe on Pacific and Van Ness. It’s around the corner, more on Pacific. Go there at least once a week for a few weeks, at 10 or 11am and order a large almond milk latte, but with only one shot. You’re trying to cut back on caffeine. Get the quiche, too, most days. Be friendly to everyone working there.

Step two:
After three weeks of this, the blonde barista will remember your order, but don’t get so cocky as to request “the usual.” Ask about where the glorious-looking desserts come from. You’ll learn that they are made elsewhere and are brought in. Tell her it’s the best almond latte you’ve found in the city. She will take it in stride. She’s heard it before, no doubt.

Step three:
The next week, she’ll remember your order but act like she should know your name, even though it’s never come up before. She tells you her name — Goldie. You tell her yours, and she’ll write it down on your order, left-handed. It doesn’t matter if she misspells it. Pay attention to her hand.

Step four:
Compliment the ring you haven’t noticed before on her ring finger. It isn’t obviously an engagement ring. Ask if she’s engaged.

Step five:
When she confirms, tell her, “Oh wow! That must be a pretty cool dude to pick out an unusual ring like that.”

Step six:
When you are corrected and told that she is a pretty cool lady, apologize and pay close attention to what happens inside you.

Step seven:
Notice, as you look at her again, you suddenly think about her differently. You are now much more interested in her. Ask her whether Goldie is a nickname. No, it’s her full name, after her Great Grandma. You suddenly wonder if you look attractive yourself, right now, and you touch your hair. You wonder what woman is the pick for this blonde lovely. Your mind imagines suggestions of their affection, hot and cool. You wonder what it would be like to kiss her, what it would be like to be allowed to touch her in a shadowy evening light.

Step eight:
As she hands you your latte, apologize for making assumptions as you hang your should-have-known-better-after-all-this-is-San-Francisco tail between your legs. Don’t worry, she isn’t really offended. She seems amused by the misinterpretation. Try not to ruminate about that strained, awkward giggle you chirped out.

Step nine:
Go to your table with your drink, and contemplate how quickly you seemed to wonder whether she thought you were hitting on her, with your short hair. Notice that you think about overtly flirting with her now, giving her a coy smile on the way out. Contemplate whether you have been restraining yourself for years, missing the truth.

Step ten:
Continue to think about her all day. Her long hair, her long skinny body with its beautiful terrible posture. Consider what it might have been like to come home to her at night, to ask her about her day. Reflect on the masculine aspects of yourself — that you hate high heels, that you basically have a men’s haircut at the moment, that you almost never wear skirts unless trying to get attention from a man. Think about an alternative life path that might exist, and how you might test it out. Contemplate whether you want to share your ponderings with your husband.